ExoMars rover launch axed over Russia tensions

ESA will need to source a different rocket, lander, and descent stage in time for next window in 2024

The European Space Agency (ESA) has slammed the brakes on its ExoMars rover, Rosalind Franklin.

According to an ESA insider, the agency today agreed to suspend the mission at its ruling council meeting in Paris.

The next launch window would be in late 2024, but finding a rocket, lander, and descent stage in that time frame presents a challenge. ESA has "authorised the ESA Director General to carry out a fast-track industrial study to better define the available options for a way forward to implement the ExoMars rover mission."

The European cost of the ExoMars program has been put at €1.3bn ($1.44bn).

The rover element of the mission was due to launch in 2020. This didn't happen thanks to problems with the parachutes. The next launch date had been slated for September 2022 and scientists were looking forward to having a rover on Mars capable of drilling deep below the surface.

In the midst of those high hopes, Russia was hit with economic sanctions following the invasion of Ukraine and the rover, a joint project with Russian space agency Roscosmos, was deemed "very unlikely" to launch. Roscosmos was to provide the Kazachok lander and descent stage for the rover, as well as the Proton rocket on which the mission was to launch.

The crumbling relationship between space agencies has far-reaching consequences. Roscosmos has pulled its personnel from Europe's Spaceport in French Guiana, and the next Galileo, Euclid, and EarthCare missions have been put on hold.

"Consequently," said ESA, "the... Director General has initiated an assessment on potential alternative launch services for these missions, which will include a review of the Ariane 6 first exploitation flights. 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."

Picking another rocket has its own challenges and The Register understands that the Vega and the in-development Ariane 6 launch vehicles could also be affected by the crisis.

As for the International Space Station (ISS), ESA said: "The main goal is to continue safe operations of the ISS, including maintaining the safety of the crew."

The agency has also announced the name of its next crewed mission to the ISS – Samantha Cristoforetti's Minerva. Cristoforetti is due to launch in less than a month aboard a Crew Dragon. We imagine there is no small amount of finger-crossing going on within ESA's astronaut corps at the moment. ®

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