The European Space Agency’s ExoMars 2022 mission won’t launch in September as planned after the agency suspended all cooperation with Russia’s space program Roscosmos.
Led collaboratively by Roscosmos and the ESA, the mission aims to study past life on Mars.
ESA’s Director General Josef Aschbacher called the September launch “practically impossible but also politically impossible,” given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Aschbacher was speaking at a media conference to announce the decision made by ESA’s Council earlier this week.
A two-stage mission
ExoMars has two parts. The first part launched an orbiter and a lander in 2016, but the lander crashed. The September 2022 launch would have been a second installment to deliver a Mars rover to the planet.
This second part of the mission was originally planned for July 2020. But it was postponed until this September due to technical issues.
ESA had hinted at the decision to suspend collaboration with Russia in a February 28 press statement. That statement had said that the sanctions brought against Russia and the wider context of the Ukraine conflict made a 2022 launch “very unlikely.”
And now it’s been canceled fully — for this year.
But while ExoMars is on hold, International Space Station (ISS) operations were moving ahead as normal, Aschbacher said.
Three Russian cosmonauts join the crew this weekend, having launched on a Russian Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan on Friday. And on March 30, a Russian capsule is scheduled to return two Russian and one American astronaut back to the Earth.
Russians pledge to go alone
Russia responded to ESA’s decision by saying it would go to Mars independently.
“Roscosmos will be able to carry out a Martian expedition on its own,” said the agency’s head Dmitry Rogozin in a statement.
“Yes, we’ll lose several years, but we’ll copy our landing module, provide it with an Angara launch vehicle, and we will carry out this research expedition from the new launch site of the Vostochny Cosmodrome independently,” Rogozin said.
Aschbacher said ESA would look into collaborating with NASA, which he says has expressed “very strong willingness” to work together on the mission.
ESA and NASA were the original ExoMars collaborators, but NASA dropped out in 2012 due to budgeting problems. Russia took NASA’s place in the project in 2013.
Dependent on Russia
The mission uses a number of Russian-made components—including the rockets. The 2016 launch used a Russian-made Proton-M rocket, the same type planned for the launch in September.
Many components of the mission’s rover are also Russian-made. That includes radioisotope heaters that are used to keep the rover warm at night on the surface of Mars.
David Parker, ESA’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration, suggested future cooperation with Russia was not off the table.
Parker said that if cooperation with Russia was resumed, a mission could potentially launch in 2024.
If Europe continues without Russia, it will have to reconfigure the mission.
“Radical reconfigurations” of the mission that wouldn’t involve cooperation with Russia could potentially allow for a launch in 2026 or 2028, said Parker.
Mars will wait for us
“It’s been an agonizing decision for our council,” he said. “Literally hundreds of scientists and engineers across Europe, the United States and, yes, Russia, have worked tirelessly to overcome the technical challenges, the programmatic challenges and different cultures to get to the point where we have a spacecraft that would be ready to launch .”
But even if the mission takes longer to realize, he said, Mars will still be there.
“Mars is four and a half billion years old, so we’ll just have to wait a few more years for it to reveal all of its secrets and maybe answer this fundamental question: ‘Was there ever life on Mars?’” said Parker . “It’s a tough, bittersweet time.”
Edited by: Zulfikar Abbany