The coronavirus pandemic just grounded a trip to Mars.
The European Space Agency and the Russian government have delayed the launch of their second ExoMars mission, geared toward figuring out whether there was ever life on the Red Planet. It was set to launch in July, but now won’t blast off until 2022. There’ve been technical problems with the parachute system to get the rover to the planet’s surface, and they’re too difficult to work out by July, in part due to the coronavirus outbreak.
“The final phase of ExoMars activities are compromised by the general aggravation of the epidemiological situation in European countries,” the agencies said in a statement.
The lander, named after the British chemist Rosalind Franklin, has a drill that allows it to dig into the planet’s surface to hunt for signs of life that might have previously existed there. The rover will eventually be supported by a satellite launched in 2016, the first phase of the joint ExoMars mission. The satellite is currently circling Mars, taking readings of the types of gases that make up the Martian atmosphere that might have once allowed life to flourish there.
A lander was already supposed to be on Mars as part of the ExoMars mission, but it crash-landed on Mars’ surface in 2016.
Jan Wörner, the head of the European Space Agency, insisted that they’re not “hiding behind” the coronavirus to justify a delay due primarily to technical problems with the mission, according to New Scientist. Europe and the Russians noted that the pandemic simply left their scientists with no ability to travel, which made ironing out the kinks impossible to do before July.
“It [the delay] is driven primarily by the need to maximize 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,” Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin said in a statement.
Cover: This undated artist rendering from the European Space Agency shows the European-Russian ExoMars rover. (European Space Agency via AP)