The ExoMars rover may get a second chance to go to Mars. The European Space Agency (ESA) wants to swap out a Russian-built entry and descent platform for a version made in Europe, but the space agency will need to secure a hefty budget to move forward.
Following a council meeting on Thursday, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher reassured reporters that the science goals of the ExoMars mission will still be relevant in six years when the space agency plans on launching the rover. “The science with the Rosalind Franklin rover is still the most advanced and interesting science in the search for life on Mars,” he said during the press briefing. “There’s no other similar mission planned...it would still be top science.”
The rover, named for scientist Rosalind Franklin, was slated for launch in September of this year to begin its journey to the Red Planet. The ExoMars rover was to launch aboard a Russian Proton rocket and land on Mars’s dusty surface using a Russian-made landing platform called Kazachok. But earlier in March, ESA suspended its joint mission with Russian space agency Roscosmos following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The space agency has been scrambling to give new life to its Mars mission and now wants to launch the rover in 2028. But in order to do that, ESA needs to provide the rover with a brand new landing platform that will be made in Europe, David Parker, ESA’s director of human and robotic exploration, said at the press briefing.
The fate of the rover will be decided at ESA’s Ministerial Council Meeting, which will be held from November 22 to 23 in Paris. Each of the space agency’s member states is represented by one person in the council, and they each get one vote to determine the guidelines for ESA’s space program. “The decision will be made at the ministerial itself, but we have finalized the legal documents in order to get there,” Aschbacher said.
At the meeting, ESA will put forward an initial budget request for a €360 million mission ($355 million), the majority of which will be used to redesign the ExoMars mission, BBC reported. The space agency may even need additional funding later on, Parker told BBC.
ExoMars is a two-part mission, with an orbiter that launched in 2016 to study the chemistry of Mars’ atmosphere. The Rosalind Franklin rover is designed to search for evidence of ancient life on Mars using a handy drill that goes 2 meters (6.5 feet) below the surface to dig up the planet’s past. “The idea is to go to Mars, but also go back in time,” Parker said during the press briefing.
The mission suffered numerous delays even before things went south with Russia’s space agency. Funding for ExoMars was granted more than 10 years ago, but technical delays and the covid-19 pandemic pushed the launch date to fall 2022.
ESA has been working feverishly to source new rides to space after no longer being able to rely on Russia’s Soyuz rocket. The space agency recently announced that it would use SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to launch its Euclid infrared space telescope sometime in 2023. ESA is also waiting on the anticipated liftoff of Europe’s Ariane 6 rocket, a heavy lift launch vehicle that is currently scheduled to debut in late 2023.
It’s looking a little rough for Europe’s space agency at the moment, but hopefully its Mars rover can eventually make its way to the Red Planet—even if it’s six years later than planned.