European Space Agency saves its Mars rover mission after fallout with Russia

Nasa will help secure a rocket for the rover's launch in 2028

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The European Space Agency has secured a critical lifeline for its ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover through a newly signed agreement with Nasa.

It helps mark a significant milestone in the recovery of the mission, which faced major setbacks after the agency cut ties with Russia in 2022 over its invasion of Ukraine.

Russia was the mission’s main partner and was responsible for providing the Proton launch vehicle and crucial parts of the rover’s landing platform, ensuring its safe descent and operation on the Martian surface.

Now, Nasa has come to the rescue and is working with the European Space Agency (ESA) to secure an American launch provider and technology to help the rover land.

“Nasa supports the Rosalind Franklin mission to continue the strong partnership between the United States and Europe to explore the unknown in our solar system and beyond,” Nicola Fox, associate administrator of Nasa’s science mission directorate, said in a statement on Thursday.

The spacecraft was supposed to be launched in September 2022 and land on Mars nine months later, but geopolitical tensions left the project in jeopardy.

Launch windows are important for missions to Mars because Earth and the Red Planet are only favourably aligned for efficient travel every 26 months due to their orbital mechanics.

Now, a new launch year of 2028 has been decided by the ESA, which would give it sufficient time to continue developing the rover and secure a rocket.

The rover is the second phase of the ESA’s ExoMars mission, which also included the launch of the Trace Gas Orbiter in 2016 to Mars’s orbit, made possible by a Russian rocket.

Drilling for ice beneath Martian surface

The orbiter has helped to provide detailed measurements of methane in the Martian atmosphere, detecting seasonal and localised variations that could suggest potential biological or geological activity.

Scientists have also used the orbiter’s data to help create high-resolution maps of the Martian surface, identifying water-ice deposits and providing data to select potential landing sites for future missions.

The Rosalind Franklin rover is the second phase of the ExoMars mission, which stands out due to its advanced scientific payload, particularly its capability to drill up to 2 metres below the Martian surface.

This depth allows the rover to access ice samples that have been shielded from the harsh surface radiation and extreme temperatures.

It could help increase the likelihood of discovering well-preserved organic molecules.

The Mars Organic Molecule Analyser, a primary science instrument on the rover, will search for the building blocks of life within these samples.

“The Rosalind Franklin rover’s unique drilling capabilities and onboard samples laboratory have outstanding scientific value for humanity’s search for evidence of past life on Mars,” said Ms Fox.

Russia's isolated space programme

Russian Space Agency Roscosmos became increasingly isolated due to sanctions placed on the country after its invasion of Ukraine.

What was once a sector that was always shielded from political struggles on the ground became vulnerable to geopolitical tensions.

Previous Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin refused to launch 36 OneWeb satellites, part of a satellite constellation developed by the European owned firm, which has its headquarters in London.

It gave the company an ultimatum to sever links with the UK government for the launch to go ahead, but the company refused.

The demands were in response to sanctions imposed by the UK.

SpaceX, which has its own Starlink satellite constellation, ended up launching the OneWeb satellites, despite being a competitor.

Russia also suspended all its launch operations from the European spaceport in French Guiana in response to the sanctions imposed by the EU.

Roscosmos withdrew all its 87 employees who were stationed there to support the Soyuz launches that lifted off from the spaceport.

Former deputy prime minister Yury Borisov was appointed the new Roscosmos chief in July 2022.

Since then, the space agency has been working on growing its space militarisation capabilities and is increasing its partnership with China.

Today, political divisions in the space sector appear to be more heightened than ever, with both the US and China trying to secure international partners for their respective projects to the Moon and beyond in this modern space race.

China, which is quickly emerging as another space power, is opening up its space programme for international collaboration.

Recently, it launched miniature satellites built by Sweden, France, Italy and Pakistan on its Chang'e-6 mission to the Moon.

Updated: May 20, 2024, 2:43 PM