Russia/ESA Delay ExoMars 2020 to 2022

Russia/ESA Delay ExoMars 2020 to 2022

The Russian and European space agencies announced today that they will delay the launch of their ExoMars 2020 Mars mission to 2022.  The decision was widely expected because of problems with the spacecraft’s parachutes, but ESA officials explained today that other testing also remains to be done.  Postponing launch by 2 years — the next time the two planets are aligned properly — will help ensure the mission’s success. The coronavirus outbreak is a contributing factor since it limits travel for those building and testing the spacecraft.

ESA Director General Jan Woerner spoke at a virtual press conference from Paris today, itself a change because of the coronavirus.  He and Dmitri Rogozin, head of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, planned to meet together in Moscow and hold a joint press conference there, but travel restrictions scuttled the trip.  Instead, they met via videoconference and Woerner and two other ESA officials later briefed reporters who could email questions to ESA’s media relations office.

Both space agencies also tweeted the news as the press conference got underway — a 2-year delay for ExoMars 2020.

The ExoMars program consists of two spacecraft. The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) was launched in 2016 and is orbiting the Red Planet now.  It is conducting science investigations and will serve as a communications relay for the ExoMars 2020 lander/rover. The lander is built by Roscosmos and the rover by ESA.  Russia will launch it on a Proton rocket.

Landing on Mars is no mean feat, as NASA reminds everyone each time it tries.  NASA has been very successful with eight successes in nine attempts, but not without a lot of nail biting.  When it landed the Curiosity rover on Mars in 2012 it coined the phrase “7 minutes of terror” to describe the descent using a “Skycrane” system.  It worked and NASA will try the same thing again for the Mars 2020 rover, Perseverance, scheduled to launch this summer.

The Earth and Mars are correctly aligned every 26 months, but some alignments are better than others. This year, 2020, is a better one so two other countries also will take advantage of it.  China will launch an orbiter/lander/rover and the United Arab Emirates is sending an orbiter.

ESA Director General Jan Woerner (right) and ESA Head of Communications Philippe Willekens (left) at ExoMars 2020 virtual press conference, March 12, 2020. Screengrab.

A lot is riding on ExoMars 2020 for Russia and ESA.  The Soviet Union attempted Mars landings four times in the 1970s (Mars 2, 3, 6, and 7) but only one  (Mars 3) successfully reached the surface and it stopped transmitting 20 seconds later.  Europe tried twice (Beagle 2 and Schiaparelli) with no success.

Hence the decision to wait until they are confident everything will go well.  The problems with the parachutes have been known for some time and ESA is now working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to find a remedy.  JPL has managed all of NASA’s Mars missions to date.

David Parker, ESA Director of Robotic and Human Exploration, explained today the problem was with the extraction of the parachutes from their bags, not the parachutes themselves, and ground tests indicate that it is resolved.  ESA now is waiting to conduct two high altitude drop tests.

Woerner said there are other issues including failed electronics boxes that had to be returned to the supplier and debonding of some of the solar panels. The key is to fix everything and conduct all the necessary testing before launch.

“There is not enough time left to fully test it before a 2020 launch and gain the confidence we need. So we could launch, but that would mean we are not doing all the tests, and from the experience we had with Beagle and Schiaparelli, the … very harsh clear message [was to] do all the tests before you launch. … We cannot really cut corners.”

Parker said he did not know how much the delay will cost, but ESA’s governing body, the Ministerial Council, approved a risk mitigation budget for the Mars exploration program when it met last fall that will cover it. The costs could be significant since the main purpose of ExoMars 2020 is to look for life on Mars and it will have to be stored in a special clean room to ensure it is not contaminated by Earth microbes.

The Ministerial Council also approved ESA’s plan to cooperate with NASA in a Mars Sample Return mission over the next decade.  NASA’s Perseverance rover that will launch this summer will collect and store (“cache”) samples that a second NASA spacecraft will “fetch” and place in a rocket that will launch the sample container into Mars orbit.  An ESA spacecraft will rendezvous with the sample container and return it to Earth.  Woerner said the delay with ExoMars 2020 will not affect ESA’s cooperation in that program.

The ESA/Roscosmos press release today mentioned that “the final phase of ExoMars activities are compromised by the general aggravation of the epidemiological situation in European countries,” referring to the coronavirus outbreak.  Woerner said, however, that he did not want to convey that it was a deciding factor.  “I would not like to say that coronavirus is the one and only reason, but … it has an impact…. What if everything was fine today, [would] we still launch? … I don’t know that answer.”

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