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ESA kicks ExoMars rover down the road, to 2026 at best

The way forward to Mars is cancelled (you meant the meeting, right?)

The European Space Agency (ESA) issued a reminder this week that the future of its ExoMars rover remained very much in the balance following the termination of cooperation with Russian space agency Roscosmos.

ESA had planned a briefing for July 20 at London's Royal Institution, but cancelled it earlier this with a message headed (with, we assume, no trace of irony) "Cancelled: The way forward to Mars."

One can but hope that is not a hint of things to come for the ExoMars rover, which must now wait until November before ESA will issue a statement on its plans for the stricken trundlebot.

Cooperation with Roscosmos on the rover and surface platform was terminated following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The plan had been to launch in 2018. This was then pushed back to 2020 and again to 2022 as engineers dealt with issues including problems with the parachutes. Eventually a launch date at the end of September 2022 was selected and all seemed well… until the invasion.

A recent roadmap published by ESA puts the launch date at 2026, although The Register understands 2028 is looking more likely.

Observers had hoped that ESA might drop some hints during the now-cancelled briefing on how one would get the rover to Mars without the Russian technology. A rocket with sufficient heft would be required, potentially meaning a Falcon Heavy or perhaps an Ariane 6 (although the payload capabilities of the latter are perhaps somewhat less than the Proton originally planned.)

And then there is the question of how one would land the rover. With the Roscosmos technology apparently not an option (at least not at present) perhaps NASA could whisk up another of the Sky Crane contraptions that successfully lowered the Curiosity and Perseverance rovers to the Martian surface. One ESA insider has suggested to The Register that some form of cage might be used, but whatever the approach, it is difficult to imagine some form of rework not being needed.

Despite the cancellation, ESA was happy to talk up another robotic mission; this time to retrieve the samples being collected by NASA's Perseverance rover. One contribution will be the Sample Transfer Arm (STA), a 2.5 metre long device which will pick up the sample tubes and pop them onto a rocket to be launched to Earth.

ESA will also be providing other components, including the Earth Return Orbiter. A Sample Fetch Rover was also on the cards, and in 2021, we spoke to one of the engineers on the ExoMars rover team about the next rover. The hope then was that lessons would be learned from the Rosalind Franklin ExoMars rover experience.

Unfortunately for the Sample Fetch Rover team, reports published today indicate that the ExoMars trundlebot follow-up might itself be for the chop as alternative architectures are studied.

With the wait for a decision on ExoMars seemingly stretching to November, the lesson for the rover team would appear to be choose your partners carefully. ®

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