A Russian-European mission designed to hunt for life on Mars was formally suspended by the European Space Agency (ESA) on Thursday in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
ExoMars, a collaboration between ESA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos, was due to launch from Russia’s spaceport in Kazakhstan this year carrying a Russian lander and a European rover that would have touched down together on the red planet in 2023, had all gone to plan.
However, ESA has now “acknowledged the present impossibility of carrying out the ongoing cooperation with Roscosmos on the ExoMars rover mission with a launch in 2022” and will instead “carry out a fast-track industrial study to better define the available options for a way forward to implement the ExoMars rover mission,” according to the agency’s statement.
“As an intergovernmental organization mandated to develop and implement space programmes in full respect with European values, we deeply deplore the human casualties and tragic consequences of the aggression towards Ukraine,” ESA said. ‘While recognizing the impact on scientific exploration of space, ESA is fully aligned with the sanctions imposed on Russia by its Member States.”
The suspension of ExoMars follows a series of ruptures between Roscosmos and its international partners over Russia’s war in Ukraine. After the European Union imposed sanctions on Russia, Roscosmos retaliated by withdrawing its personnel from ESA’s spaceport in French Guiana, and refusing to launch European and British missions on Russian rockets from the facility.
Roscosmos has also cut ties with its American partners by halting the supply of its rocket engines to the United States. Dmitry Rogozin, head of Roscosmos, has also feuded with NASA astronauts on Twitter, joked about leaving a NASA astronaut stranded on the International Space Station, and threatened to crash the station into the U.S., further fraying a decades-long tradition of Russian-American cooperation in space.
The suspension is the latest in a series of misfortunes for ExoMars, which was originally slated for launch in 2020. The mission had to be delayed for two years to deal with complications of the Covid-19 pandemic and to allow time for adequate tests of landing components and software.
The Russian-European ExoMars team previously sent an orbiter and lander to Mars in 2016; the lander crashed on the Martian surface, but the orbiter is still operating at Mars. ESA had originally wanted to partner with NASA on the ExoMars mission, but that avenue was closed off by the Obama administration which canceled the collaboration in 2012 over budget concerns.
Now, the future of ExoMars and its Mars rover, named after DNA pioneer Rosalind Franklin, is once again thrown into uncertainty.