ESA Firmly Says No to ExoMars Launch This Year

ESA Firmly Says No to ExoMars Launch This Year

The European Space Agency’s governing council made the “agonizing” decision today to suspend the European-Russian ExoMars mission scheduled for launch in September. ESA earlier said the launch was unlikely after European countries imposed sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, but made clear today it is “impossible.” ESA officials said they are beginning to assess options, but the earliest it could launch is 2026.

ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher at an ESA press conference, March 17, 2022. Screengrab.

ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher and other officials spoke at a press conference following a two-day meeting of the ESA Council, which governs the international organization.

ESA has 22 member states: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Slovakia just became an Associate Member, joining Slovenia, Latvia and Lithuania. Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, and Cyprus have Cooperation Agreements.

Most of those countries have imposed sanctions against Russia for attacking Ukraine and ESA is “fully aligned” with them.

ESA has a number of cooperative agreements with Russia and is still sorting out how to deal with the situation, but Aschbacher made it clear that ExoMars definitely will not launch this year, expanding on an earlier statement that it was unlikely. It is “practially impossible, but also politically impossible” to launch in September.

Illustration of ESA’s Rosalind Frankin rover (foreground) after it has rolled off Russia’s Kazachok landing platform (center left). Credit: ESA

The program is not cancelled, but “suspended.” ESA is looking for alternatives to get its Rosalind Franklin rover to the Red Planet. Earth and Mars are correctly aligned for launches only every 26 months, so the next opportunities are in 2024, 2026, and 2028.  Aschbacher said it is not feasible to be ready by 2024, so it will be one of the later dates.

Russia was providing the lander, Kazachok, to deliver ESA’s rover as well as scientific experiments and, importantly, the radioisotope heating unit that keeps systems warm.

Aschbacher said they are beginning detailed studies and “NASA has expressed its very strong willingness to support us.”  NASA and ESA already are partnered on a Mars Sample Return mission.

David Parker, ESA’s Director for Human and Robotic Exploration, spoke to the emotional dimension of the decision.

I cannot disguise in any way, of course, the disappointment of the people involved in the project over so many years. It’s been really an agonizing decision for Council to make because we, the Executive, have been supported by Council through thick and thin on this project after all the challenges we’ve had. The literally hundreds of scientists and engineers across Europe, the United States, and yes, Russia, who have worked tirelessly to overcome the technical challenges, the programmatic challenges, and the different cultures to get to the point where we have a spacecraft that would be ready to launch.

And it’s an agonizing decision for the member states because they have invested themselves in the instruments, the science, but also training scientists, the next generation of scientists, that would use the data that comes back from Rosalind Franklin. And as Josef has said, it’s important to emphasize that nobody else has built an analytical … machine capable of searching at the molecular level the possibility of past life on Mars.

And so we’re very proud of what has been achieved by the team so far. And I guess Mars is one half billion years old, so we 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. But it’s a tough, bittersweet time.

ExoMars is just one of the programs where ESA and Russia work together. Aschbacher said they are developing a list of all the activities and projects, including Luna 25, and components they get from Russia and going through it “one by one” to determine the path forward.

ESA is one of the partners in the International Space Station and like NASA is focused on its safe operation.  ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer is aboard the ISS right now. Aschbacher said Maurer is “feeling well and happy” and doing the tasks he is assigned to do. Last summer Russia launched a new module to the ISS that has an 11-meter European Robotic Arm. Aschbacher said no decision has been made on its future.

Liftoff of ST29 Starsem mission for OneWeb, Vostochny Cosmodrome, Russia, December 18, 2020. Credit: Arianespace.

Another major area of cooperation is on launch vehicles. Starsem is a European-Russian company that launches Russian Soyuz rockets from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, and Russia’s Baikonur and Vostochny Cosmodromes. In retaliation for Europe’s sanctions, Russia withdrew its personnel from Kourou, suspending Soyuz launches there. A Soyuz launch from Baikonur for the U.K.-based company OneWeb was scrubbed after the head of Russia’s space program, Dmitry Rogozin, demanded that the U.K. government divest its shares in OneWeb and guarantee the communications satellites would not be used for military purposes. The U.K. and OneWeb refused and Europe’s French-based launch services company Arianespace, the European partner in Starsem, suspended all Starsem launches. The rocket was already on the pad, days from launch, but it was taken back to its processing center and the 36 satellites put into storage.

Russia had attracted a number of non-Russian customers for its Soyuz launches who now have to find other ways to get their satellites to orbit. ESA’s Euclid and EarthCare satellites, two Galileo navigation satellites for the European Union, and a French satellite are among them. ESA has initiated an assessment of potential alternatives. ESA is on the cusp of introducing two new launch vehicles, Ariane 6 and Vega-C, on the large and small ends of the launch vehicle spectrum. Soyuz is a medium-class vehicle. “A robust launch manifest for ESA missions’ launch needs, including for spacecraft originally planned for launch by Soyuz from Kourou, will be submitted to Member States,” the agency said.

The ESA Council meets quarterly, but in light of the situation Aschbacher will convene an “extraordinary session of the Council in the coming weeks to submit specific proposals for decision by Member States.” That is planned for April.

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