Russia has been the target of extensive economic sanctions in the weeks since its invasion of Ukraine, but Moscow’s space program has been largely unaffected until now. The European Space Agency (ESA) has decided to postpone the ExoMars mission, a joint effort with Russia that was supposed to launch this year. Instead, the ESA will undertake a study to determine how it can launch ExoMars without Russia.
When the invasion began last month, Russian space agency Roscosmos attempted to remain neutral. Even when relations between Russia and the west have been strained, Roscosmos has managed to stay out of it. The Ukraine invasion is apparently just a bridge too far for the ESA, particularly as Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin spreads Kremlin talking points on Twitter.
The ESA expressed concern about the future of ExoMars several weeks ago, but the agency’s ruling council voted this week to suspend the mission, citing the economic sanctions imposed by its member states and the great loss of life in Ukraine. Since the ESA split the work with Roscosmos, it still has about half of a Mars mission ready to go. The ESA has the Rosalind Franklin rover (above) almost complete, but it’ll need a ride. Roscosmos was supposed to provide a lander for the rover, as well as a Proton rocket to get it off Earth. The ESA would need to find replacements for both of those before it can proceed.
ExoMars was supposed to launch this coming September when Earth and Mars are in close proximity. It seems unlikely that the ESA will be able to identify alternative systems for ExoMars in time to make that timeline work, and the next Mars transfer window doesn’t open until 2024. So, this is looking like a multi-year delay for ExoMars. In the meantime, the program does have a Mars probe to keep the team occupied.
The first ExoMars launch took place in 2016. For that launch, Russia’s Roscosmos provided a rocket to get the payload into space, as well as two instrument packages on the ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO). Unfortunately, the Schiaparelli lander that rode to the red planet with the TGO failed to slow its descent and crashed into the surface. The TGO is still out there, though, scanning the thin Martian atmosphere. The plan was to use TGO as a communication link for the Rosalind Franklin rover when it arrived, but the orbiter is already reaching the end of its expected life. If it takes a few more years to get the second ExoMars off the ground, the ESA might need an alternative here as well.