The European Space Agency (ESA) and Roscosmos Space Corporation (RSC) have blinked and postponed the planned 2020 launch of the ExoMars rover Rosalind Franklin.
The mission had been on shaky ground after failures during the testing of the lander's parachutes and despite help from the likes of NASA, the team finally accepted that things would simply not be ready in time to meet the narrow July-August launch window.
Instead, the rover will be sent on its way during a window that extends from July to October in 2022.
#ExoMars to take off for the Red Planet in 2022.— @ESA_ExoMars (@ESA_ExoMars) March 12, 2020
Check out the new timeline for mission success on the Red Planet!
More about the decision by @esa and @roscosmos: https://t.co/6wRtjKD1my
Speaking in Paris today, ESA director general Jan Wörner insisted the gang had to be 100 per cent sure (or as near as they could be) that the mission would be a success and, after praising how complete both the Russian and European sides were, admitted that things just weren't going to be ready in time.
ESA also noted that the whole virus furore wasn't helping matters either. The press conference was, after all, supposed to have been in Moscow and RSC boss Dmitry Rogozin, who was supposed to have been in attendance, did not turn up due to "technical issues."
However, it is the fact that testing just isn't going to be completed in time that has put paid to plans for a 2020 launch.
As well as a final two high-altitude parachute tests due in March in the US (and competing with other NASA priorities), the team noted some "technical bugs" in the electronics of the descent module. All solvable, they said, but, alas, not in time to get the flight software finalised, validated and ready for launch.
"We could launch," the DG noted, but after the experience of the agency's previous attempts at landing on the Martian surface (Scaparelli and Beagle 2) the motto is: "Do all the tests before you launch."
As for what happens now, a small fix is required to the solar array of the rover before it begins its lengthy period of clean-room storage.
Bit dusty, innit?
The Register queried the impact of those years of storage on the spacecraft and asked whether there might be any shortening of the lifetime of its components. Francois Spoto, the programme team leader for the project, was unsure. "So far, we don't think so, but there has to be further study."
Wörner added that if it transpired that there was a specific component that turned out to have an issue, then it could be changed.
Of course, two years sitting motionless in storage prior to launch will do the rover's lubricated moving parts no good at all, and Spoto said that it would need to be "awakened" every now and again.
We also asked what the additional costs for the delay would be. David Parker, ESA's director of Human and Robotic Exploration, replied the final figure was "pending negotiations with industry", although the team had highlighted the risk of delay and included a risk mitigation budget in the overall Mars exploration programme.
Delaying a mission to ensure all tests are complete? We could think of one aviation giant that could learn a thing or two from such a revolutionary approach.
Wörner rounded out the press conference with the comment "Stay healthy". We're not entirely sure if he meant the humans listening in or the rover facing an unexpected stay in clean room quarantine. Possibly both. ®