Multiple technical issues will delay the launch of the ExoMars mission for 2 years until 2022, the European Space Agency (ESA) and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, announced today. ExoMars includes a Russian-built landing station and an ESA rover that would drill 2 meters below Mars’s surface to look for signs of past or present life. Now, just 4 months from its originally planned launch, the mission has been postponed because of problems with its parachute system, solar panels, and electrical wiring.
“We cannot really cut corners,” said ESA Director General Jan Wöerner today at a press conference, following a meeting with Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin. “It was a very tough decision, but I’m sure it was the right one.”
Although the issues could be resolved in the next few months, Wöerner said there was not enough time to test the mission’s software system on the final flight-ready spacecraft. He did not want a repeat of the failure of ESA’s first Mars lander, 2016’s Schiaparelli, which crashed because of a software error during its descent.
Once repairs and testing are complete—probably by the end of the year–the lander and rover will be put into storage until the next launch window in the autumn of 2022, when the planets are aligned to allow the quickest journey. Scientists who have spent decades building instruments for the mission are philosophical about the delay. “Such is life. It’s the way it goes,” says Valérie Ciarletti of the University of Paris-Saclay. “Space missions are like this,” says Francesca Esposito of the Astronomical Observatory of Capodimonte.
Problems with the parachutes emerged last year during high altitude drop tests. The parachute fabric was torn while being pulled from its bag. Following redesigns, NASA and ESA engineers carried out successful ground tests at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But crucial drop tests in Oregon had to be delayed because the testing company had to perform parachute tests for Boeing’s Starliner crewed spacecraft. The ExoMars chute tests are expected in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, environmental testing in Cannes, France, revealed the failure of glue holding solar panels to the rover, named after British DNA pioneer Rosalind Franklin. ESA’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration David Parker told the press conference that this was partly expected from earlier studies. Once the rover has completed its tests in Cannes and is returned to its manufacturer in Turin, Italy, the panels will be attached with “additional mechanical fastenings,” Parker said.
The lander, which doubles as a base station with sensors to study Mars’s interior, atmosphere, and weather, had four components that malfunctioned electrically during testing, Wöerner said, and have been returned to their manufacturers for modification. All these issues have delayed an overall test of the spacecraft’s software system, which must be carried out on the complete spacecraft. Insiders say that right now, the mission has used up all its time contingency and is 2 weeks behind schedule. “We have to wait until it is fully repaired,” said ExoMars project manager Francois Spoto. “That’s why we need a delay.”
Wöerner said the mission in 2022 would go ahead with the same launcher and landing site. There are no plans to add new instruments to the spacecraft, but ESA has offered instrument teams the chance to tinker with their devices and swap out components if needed. However, a delayed launch will mean ExoMars will not join two other Mars rovers planned for launch during the July/August launch window. NASA’s Perseverance rover is on track, and China plans to send a small rover along with an orbiter.
That’s a shame, Ciarletti says, because ExoMars and Perseverance “would have benefitted from operating at the same time.” Both rovers have ground-penetrating radar to study the top few meters of soil beneath the surface and the Rosalind Franklin rover’s deep sampling drill would have helped both missions to understand what the radar was seeing. And that, in turn, could have helped Perseverance in its goal to collect and store samples of rock and soil for that would later be brought back to Earth by a Mars sample return mission. Researchers still hope that Perseverance may last beyond its nominal 2-year mission and overlap with ExoMars. Wöerner said the delay would not impact on ESA’s plans to collaborate with NASA on the sample return missions next decade.
For all the disappointment in the delay, Ciarletti is still OK with it. Schiaparelli was a technology demonstrator, but the hopes of hundreds of scientists ride with ExoMars. “The scientific payload is impressive. It would be a nightmare if it just crashed on Mars,” she says.