The launch of the ExoMars 2020 rover mission has been postponed to 2022 primarily because the spacecraft requires more tests, troubles that have been amplified by the coronavirus epidemic that has left "practically no possibility" for travel, according to mission leads.
Developed jointly by the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, the ExoMars 2020 mission, which was scheduled to launch in July, aims to put a European-built rover called Rosalind Franklin on Mars, which will be carried by a Russian-built lander called Kazachok.
The surface mission is tasked with hunting for signs of life on Mars in the Oxia region at the Martian equator. The mission was originally scheduled to launch in 2018, but was pushed back to 2020 because multiple components were not ready for that deadline. The new delay will push the arrival of the lander and rover on Mars back to 2023, at the earliest, because the best opportunities to travel from Earth to Mars occur roughly every two years.
ESA director general Jan Wörner announced the postponement in a press conference in Moscow on Thursday, after consultation with Roscosmos director general Dmitry Rogozin. The main reason for the holdup is that Kazachok’s software and parachute systems require more tests to ensure they will be ready for the critical entry, descent, and landing (EDL) sequence on Mars.
In addition to the need for more tests, Wörner and Rogozin both confirmed that the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified uncertainties about the ExoMars launch. One of this mission’s touted strengths is its collaborative spirit, but its international framework is now vulnerable to travel restrictions and potential quarantines to contain the outbreak.
For instance, one of the rover’s control centers is located in Italy, where the population is currently quarantined, and several European Union nations have announced measures to curb travel and ban large public gatherings.
"We have made a difficult but well-weighed decision to postpone the launch to 2022,” Rogozin said in a statement. “It is driven primarily by the need to maximise the robustness of all ExoMars systems as well as force majeure circumstances related to exacerbation of the epidemiological situation in Europe which left our experts practically no possibility to proceed with travels to partner industries.”
While the pandemic remains an organizational wild card for mission leads, ESA spokesperson Ninja Menning confirmed in an email that “the delay is not primarily due to concerns over COVID-19.”
At the press conference, Wörner said that most of the spacecraft’s components are ready to launch, but he stressed that more “verification activities will ensure a safe trip” and that “we cannot allow ourselves any margin of error.” This high degree of caution about the EDL sequence is especially understandable considering that the first lander in the ExoMars program, called Schiaparelli, crashed during its attempt to touch down on Mars in 2016.
The pandemic has disrupted many other space agencies and industries. NASA’s Ames Research Center in California has told the majority of its staff to stay home after an employee tested positive for COVID-19, and industry conferences, such as Satellite 2020, have cancelled events as a precaution.