Europe halts £1bn Mars mission with Russia over invasion of Ukraine

EUROPE’S first mission to the surface of Mars has been put on hold as a result of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.

The European Space Agency said on Thursday it will no longer attempt to launch the ExoMars rover on a Russian rocket this year and may now have to remove the mission’s many Russian components.

Artist's rendering of the ExoMars rover


Artist’s rendering of the ExoMars roverPhoto credit: ESA

This means ESA will have to wait at least a few more years and may need Nasa’s help before launching the mission.

The rover will drill into the planet’s dusty surface, looking for signs of whether it has ever harbored life.

A launch with Russia’s state space company Roskosmos is now practically impossible, but also politically impossible, said ESA Director Josef Aschbacher. “This year the start is gone.”

As if trying to unravel spaghetti, experts will now try to figure out how to get by without the Russian technology woven into the mission.

For example, a heater that should keep the rover on Mars from freezing is from Russia.

So does most of the mission’s Kazachok landing platform, which means “little Cossack” in Russian.

The mostly European six-wheeled rover was to roll onto the Martian surface from this platform.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Aschbacher said the space agency will now go through the mission component by component to determine how much time it will take to complete it without the Russians.

Alternatives could be sourced from Europe and with the help of NASA, he said.

“Because of the Russian invasion, we have to unravel all this cooperation that we had, and it’s a very complex process, a painful one I can tell you too, but also a very complex one, and we have to do it,” he said.

He described the failure of the cooperation as a wake-up call for Europe to develop its own space technologies.

“We need to make sure we have our independent access to space,” he said.

Due to their respective orbits around the sun, Mars is only easily accessible from Earth every two years.

The earliest next launch window would be 2024.

If the sanctions against Russia have not been lifted by then and ESA’s cooperation with Roskosmos can be resumed, this window could also be missed.

“The earliest launch of a fully European or Europe-Nasa version of the ExoMars rover would be 2026 or, failing that, 2028,” Aschbacher said.

The rover itself is called Rosalind Franklin and is equipped with a drill to search for signs of life at depths of up to two meters (6 feet) below the Martian surface, where they might be well preserved if they exist.

ESA had previously said the mission was “very unlikely” because of Russia’s war with Ukraine.

The decision to suspend cooperation with Roscosmos was taken by ESA’s governing council at a meeting in Paris.

“We deeply regret the human casualties and the tragic consequences of the aggression against Ukraine,” the ESA said in a statement.

“While recognizing the implications for scientific exploration of space, ESA fully agrees with the sanctions imposed on Russia by its member states.”

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The ExoMars mission has already been pushed back from 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic and the need for further testing on the spacecraft.

The mission was scheduled to launch in September on a Russian Proton-M rocket from the Baikonur launch site in Kazakhstan and land on the red planet about nine months later.

NASA’s Perseverance rover and China’s first Mars rover Zhurong, named after the Chinese god of fire, are already on Mars.

Both landed on the red planet last year. Two other NASA spacecraft are still active on the surface: Curiosity and InSight.

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