The ExoMars rover, previously expected to hurtle toward Mars later this year, really can’t seem to catch a break. After facing multiple delays caused by testing issues and the pandemic, the mission faces yet another setback: war.
That’s according to a recent statement released by the European Space Agency, which said the current situation has jeopardized any 2022 launch.
“We are fully implementing sanctions imposed on Russia by our Member States,” the ESA said in a statement. “Regarding the ExoMars programme continuation, the sanctions and the wider context make a launch in 2022 very unlikely.”
ExoMars is a joint mission between the ESA and Russian state space agency Roscosmos. It’s intended to search for organic molecules or even signs of life on the Red Planet. The ExoMars rover was expected to launch this fall and eventually land on Mars sometime in 2023, where it would have joined NASA’s two rovers and lander and another rover launched by China already operating on the planet. Last week’s military action against Ukraine and the ensuing international sanctions have now made that timeline a pipedream.
ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher acknowledged the delay on Monday, describing the escalating war in Ukraine as a “crisis.”
“We deplore the tragic events taking place in Ukraine, a crisis which escalated dramatically into war in recent days,” Aschbacher said. “Many difficult decisions are now being taken at ESA in consideration of the sanctions implemented by the governments of our Member States.”
That bad piece of news sounds somewhat familiar. ExoMars was once scheduled for a summer 2020 launch, but that was pushed back due to a combination of technical delays and, like so much else in the past two years, the covid-19 pandemic. The first mission of the ExoMars program, which arrived at Mars in 2016, was a mixed success: All went well with the Trace Gas Orbiter satellite, which now circles Mars and delivers fascinating scientific results; but the Schiaparelli lander that arrived with it crashed on the Martian surface, after a miscalculation told its software it was below the ground rather than 2 miles above it.
The ideal launch opportunity for a spacecraft making its way to Mars only occurs once every 26 months, meaning unsuspected hiccups can lead to lengthy delays.