It cost £ 840m to build and took 15 years to build. But now there are growing fears that the British-built robot rover – which was due to fly to Europe’s Exomers mission in September – may never land on the Red Planet.
The specimen was drilled deep into the surface of Mars to collect specimens that could carry signs of past or present life, but its launch on a huge Russian proton rocket was postponed last month after the invasion of Ukraine.
Ideally, the rover – built in Stevenage, Hertfordshire and funded by the European Space Agency – will have to wait another two years before the next window opens to send a spacecraft to Mars. However, some astronomers fear that the possibility of a rover named after British DNA pioneer Rosalind Franklin now looks bleak. If the delay continues, it could eventually be a mothball, scientists have warned.
“In the current situation, we can work with Russia, and that attitude will last for a long time,” said Professor John Jarneki, an astronomer at Open University. “This could delay ExoMars for the rest of the decade. By then, its technology will be out of date.”
The alternative is to find another launcher. However, such measures cause other problems. Russia was also providing Kazakh landers that Rosalind Franklin had to settle safely on the planet’s surface. “First, a giant parachute will lower the spacecraft as it descends through the Martian atmosphere. Then the Kazakh retro rockets would slow it down so that the rover could land softly, “said Andrew Coates, a professor at University College London.
“It will be an extremely difficult, complex technique and it will not be easy to design a replacement landing system,” added Coates, who is the chief investigator for the rover’s panoramic camera test.
Earlier Martin rovers were able to scrape soil samples from a depth of about 6 cm. “It’s a key feature of this mission,” Coates said. “We will bring samples from a depth of two meters, where any signs of life will be better protected from the cosmic rays hitting the surface of Mars.”
Dozens of British astronomers, including Ain O’Brien at the University of Glasgow, are involved in working on ExoMars.
“It’s a wonderful experience for all of us,” he said Observer. “We are sorry for what happened to our work and for the opportunity to be involved in the search for life on Mars, but you also feel sorry for it – because, among other things, it is really a small disaster compared to its people.” Ukraine is suffering. “
While some scientists are relatively optimistic that Europe and Russia could cooperate in space again, others remain skeptical.
Robert Massey of the Royal Astronomical Society said, “If this is postponed until the end of the decade, as we search for new launchers and develop new landing systems, the mission will start to look old.” “So now the speculation is that it can never fly.”
This view was supported by O’Brien: “Ultimately, we need to reduce losses and focus on other Mars missions.”
Nor is the ExoMars likely to be the only casualty of the Ukraine attack. Russia supplies relatively cheap but powerful rockets that have been used in the past to launch many European missions. The immediate victims of a future launch suspension will include two Galileo navigation satellites, while the Japanese space agency, ESA’s Earthcare Science Mission in collaboration with Jaxar, and the Euclid Infrared Space Telescope will also be affected.
Even more confusing is the potential impact on the International Space Station, which relies on a Russian propulsion system to erode its orbit and move it to avoid space debris. If Russia pulls out of the ISS, the giant orbiting laboratory will slowly spiral downwards until it crashes.
Dmitry Rogzin, head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, recently clarified the threat. He told the country’s state news agency Tass that Russia would determine “how long the ISS will work.”