Europe’s first Mars rover mission saved by major investment
The ExoMars programme was imperilled after the European Space Agency cut ties with its former partner Russia.
Europe’s Rosalind Franklin Mars rover, part of the beleaguered €1.3-billion (US$1.3-billion) ExoMars programme, is now set to launch in 2028, after securing a reported €360 million investment from European countries.
The money will allow the European Space Agency (ESA) to start designing a new landing platform intended to lower its first Martian rover onto the planet’s surface. The work is necessary after ESA severed ties with its former partner on the mission, the Russian space agency Roscosmos, in March, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russia was in charge of designing and building landing gear for the rover, as well as launching the mission from its site in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.
“I am very relieved and incredibly happy that this great mission was not taken away from us and that I can continue to hope to steer a rover on Mars one day,” says Daniela Tirsch, a planetary geologist at the German Aerospace Center in Berlin. Only the United States and China have had placed working rovers on Mars.
The latest delay to 2028 is the third in the mission’s history. The ExoMars rover was originally intended to launch in 2018, but technical issues scuppered that plan. The COVID-19 pandemic then delayed a scheduled 2020 flight to 2022, before relations with Russia deteriorated. The cost of the delay from 2020 to 2022 was on the order of €100 million, an ESA spokesperson told Nature.
Despite its delays and burgeoning costs, scientists remain excited about the ExoMars mission, which is the second part of a programme that includes an orbiter that arrived at the red planet in 2016 and has been hunting for biological or geological origins of methane and other gases.
The Franklin rover carries a 2-metre drill that will burrow deep beneath the Martian surface to search for preserved evidence of ancient life. “We will search for evidence of past life in the subsurface for the very first time,” says Jorge Vago, ESA project scientist for the mission, based at the European Space Research and Technology Centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands.
“ExoMars is a really incredible mission that will be unique in method and scientific approach, even if launched in 2028,” says Francesca Esposito, a planetary scientist at the INAF Astronomical Observatory of Capdiomonte in Naples, Italy, and member of the mission.
“It’s the first mission which can probe the very early history of terrestrial planets,” adds Tirsch, noting that ExoMars’s landing site, a vast plain called Oxia Planum, records “unique information on ancient, water-rich Mars environments, prebiotic chemistry, and, perhaps, life”.
ESA expects that NASA will help by contributing the mission’s launcher, its braking engine, for use during landing, and its radioisotope heating units, said ESA director-general Josef Aschbacher, speaking at the press briefing after the conference. The latter is necessary for Rosalind Franklin to survive the harsh Martian nights. But European technology will replace the rest of Russia’s lost contribution, he said.
Member states promised the cash for the mission at the ESA ministerial conference held in Paris on 22–23 November, where they committed a total budget of €16.9 billion for projects over five years. This includes €2.7 billion for human and robotic space exploration, an increase of 16% over the last agreement in 2019, and €3.2 billion for the agency’s scientific programme, a rise of 19%.
As part of this, ministers agreed to fund the Solaris project, a programme to scope out the viability of developing, from 2025, a space-based solar power system that would bring energy to Earth. Nations worldwide are exploring the technology, which would seek to beam down energy from a kilometres-sized solar array in orbit and which has become more viable given the plummeting costs of space launches.
ESA’s ExoMars plans depend on NASA contributions
WASHINGTON — While the European Space Agency has secured funding to continue the ExoMars mission for a 2028 launch, that plan requires cooperation with NASA that has yet to be finalized.
ESA went into the meeting looking for about half of the 700 million euros ($725 million) needed to replace components of the mission Russia was originally to provide, including the landing platform that would deliver ESA’s Rosalind Franklin rover to the surface of Mars.
“There were different options that have been discussed, all the way to putting the Rosalind Franklin rover in a museum,” Aschbacher said. “I am very glad to say that we have found a very positive way forward.” He did not disclose how much funding ESA member states contributed to ExoMars.
The mission, now slated for launch in 2028, will primarily replace the Russian components with European ones, with several exceptions. “We have expectations that the U.S. will also contribute to this, with a launcher, a braking engine and the RHUs, the radioisotope heating units,” he said. “But the majority of the future ExoMars mission is European.”
Those NASA contributions are in line with past comments by project officials. In May, Jorge Vago, ExoMars project scientist at ESA, said the agency would likely need thrusters for the new landing system like those Aerojet Rocketdyne produced for NASA Mars landers because there are no similar thrusters available from European sources.
Europe also lacks the plutonium-238 used for RHUs, devices about the size of a C-cell battery that provide heating through radioactive decay. NASA’s solar-powered Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers, for example, each used eight RHUs to keep the spacecraft warm without using electrical power. Supplying the RHUs would, in turn, require launch on a U.S. vehicle because the RHUs cannot be exported.
An industry source, speaking on background, said the launch will be the most expensive contribution, with the overall NASA contribution likely on the order of a couple hundred million dollars. NASA is expected, in turn, to seek opportunities for U.S. scientists to participate on ExoMars in exchange for that contribution.
Both ESA and NASA officials have hinted for months about a role for the NASA along those lines to support the ExoMars mission but have been reticent to go into details. Aschbacher and NASA Administrator Bill Nelson met in June, and Aschbacher said at a briefing that he received a “very strong” letter of support regarding ExoMars from Nelson, but no firm commitment.
Aschbacher said at the briefing that those planned NASA contributions were pending an agreement yet to be finalized between the agencies. “Their contribution still needs to be confirmed because they waited for our decision today,” he said.
NASA has not publicly commented on its plans for ExoMars since the ministerial meeting, and an agency spokesperson did not respond to questions Nov. 23 about NASA’s plans for the mission.
Long-delayed ExoMars mission still dreams of 2028 launch
War, budget cuts, a pandemic and a crash: For all its trials, Europe's ExoMars mission might be more deserving of the name Perseverance than NASA's Martian rover.
But the European Space Agency still hopes the mission can launch in 2028 on its long-delayed quest to search for extraterrestrial life on the Red Planet.
This time last year, the ESA's Rosalind Franklin rover was all ready for a September launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, planning to catch a ride on a Russian rocket and descend to the Martian surface on a Russian lander.
Then Moscow invaded Ukraine in March, and sanctions imposed by the ESA's 22 member states led to Russia pulling out and the mission being suspended.
It was just the latest blow for the hundreds of scientists who have been working on the project for more than two decades.
First conceived in 2001, the ambitious programme quickly proved too expensive for Europe, which has still to land a rover on Mars.
The United States' space agency NASA stepped in to fill the funding gap in 2009. But three years later, budget cuts led to NASA pulling out.
Together, the ESA and Roscosmos launched the Schiaparelli EDM module in 2016 as a test run for ExoMars.
But when Schiaparelli arrived at Mars, a computer glitch caused it to crash into the surface and fall silent.
That failure pushed back the launch of the joint Russian-European ExoMars mission to July 2020.
The Covid-19 pandemic pushed that date back to 2022, when it was again delayed by the invasion of Ukraine.
- Tricky Russian negotiations -
Late last year, the ESA's ministerial council agreed to kept the mission alive with an injection of 500 million euros ($540 million) over the next three years.
David Parker, the ESA's director of human and robotic exploration, said last week that one of the arguments they put forward for continuing the mission was "that this is a unique piece of European science.
"It's like James Webb," he said referring to the space telescope that has been sending back astonishing images of distant galaxies since 2022.
"But it's for Mars -- it's that scale of ambition.
"This is the only mission that is foreseen that can actually find evidence of past life."
But some significant hurdles remain that could make a 2028 launch difficult -- including that the ESA needs a new way to land its rover on Mars.
The ESA will first have to recover European components, including an onboard computer and radar altimeter, from Russia's Kazachok lander, which is still at its assembly site in Turin, Italy.
ExoMars rover testing moves ahead and deep down
ESA’s Rosalind Franklin twin rover is back on its wheels and drilled down 1.7 metres into a martian-like ground in Italy – about 25 times deeper than any other rover has ever attempted on Mars. The rover also collected samples for analysis under the watchful eye of European science teams.
This was the third successful deep drilling test on Earth for the European wheeled laboratory, an operation crucial to answer the question of whether there was, or is, life on the Red Planet.
A year has passed since the launch of the rover mission was put on hold and then cancelled, but the work has not stopped for the ExoMars teams in Europe. Today ESA, together with international and industrial partners, is reshaping the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin mission with new European elements and a target date of 2028 for the trip to Mars.
Amalia, the rover test model, has not been idle or far from its twin. The Rosalind Franklin rover, the one that will fly to Mars, patiently awaits in the ultra-clean room of Thales Alenia Space in Turin, Italy. Fully representative of what Rosalind will do on the Red Planet, engineers used the Amalia rover to scout a Mars terrain simulator at the ALTEC premises in the search for a drilling spot.
Amalia took its time to perforate a well filled with soil – soft silica on the surface, followed by layers of sand and fine volcanic soil, all of them resembling what Rosalind the rover could encounter under the martian surface.
On day three of the test excavation, the drill stretched almost to its maximum and reached its target – a gypsum mineral from the Turin region, commonly found in sedimentary deposits linked to water.
The finding was relevant to Mars geology because the targeted landing site for the rover, Oxia Planum, is an area where sediments might preserve traces of an ancient water-rich Mars environment. Oxia Planum will be the geologically oldest landing site visited on Mars when Rosalind Franklin lands there in 2030.
Scientists want to go very deep to access to well-preserved organic material from four billion years ago, when conditions on the surface of Mars were more like those on infant Earth and the area could have hosted micro-organisms.
The record for the deepest any drill has dug and sampled on the Red Planet to date is 7.1 cm, and it currently belongs to NASA’s Perseverance rover.
The test in Turin with Amalia was considered a success when, on day four, the drill acquired a sample in the shape of a pellet of about 1 cm in diameter and delivered it to the laboratory that is inside the rover’s belly.
Once the drill was completely retracted, the pellet was dropped into a drawer that withdrew and transferred the sample into a crushing station. The resulting powder will be distributed to ovens and containers for scientific analysis.
The whole operation was assisted by the eyes of the rover. The Panoramic Camera suite, known as PanCam, used its high-resolution camera to closely examine rock texture and grain size in colour.
On Mars, this powerful camera will help investigate very fine details in outcrops, rocks and soils from a distance, find the most promising spots to drill, and then take high resolution images of the samples sitting in the holder of the core sample transfer mechanism, before they are sent to the rover’s laboratory.
At the same time, the Close-Up Imager, CLUPI, mounted on the outside of the drill itself, provided detailed views of the soil tailings pile churned out by the drilling action, as well as of the sample in the holder on its way to the lab.
The reliable acquisition of deep samples that are preserved from the harsh radiation environment at the surface is key for ExoMars’ main science objective: to investigate the chemical composition of the soil, and with it, possible signs of life.
The data coming in from the deep drilling simulation in chorus with the science instruments was the baseline for more tests. The science team at the control room received a mix of data from the test, simulated data from other Mars-like samples and a set of images of the sample and the drilling spot.
Scientists were confronted with the challenge of reacting quickly and coming up with a plan of activities for the next sol, or martian day, that would be sent to the rover on Mars.
“These simulations are valuable because they put us in the driver’s seat in an immersive environment – so that we can practice and refine how we will run Rosalind Franklin rover operations,” explains Elliot Sefton-Nash, a project scientist for the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin Mission.