A Russian-European mission to land a rover on Mars has been suspended due to the Kremlin’s invasion on Ukraine.
The European Space Agency announced this on Friday, March 18, 2022, and Moscow said it has regretted the “bitter” decision made.
The ExoMars mission was set to use a Russian launcher later this year (2022) to send a European rover to drill for signs of life on the Red Planet (Mars). However, the ESA said the war in Ukraine and sanctions against Moscow has compelled it to cease cooperation with Russia and look for another way to launch ExoMars and four other missions using Russian rockets.
“We deeply deplore the human casualties and tragic consequences of the aggression towards Ukraine. While recognising the impact on scientific exploration of space, ESA is fully aligned with the sanctions imposed on Russia.”An ESA Statement
But the Head of Roscosmos (a Russian space agency), Dmitry Rogozin, called the decision a “shame”. Rogozin, in a statement on Telegram, noted that “This is a very bitter (decision) for all the enthusiasts of space”. He said the project “would lose several years” but that Russia would “conduct this research expedition on our own”.
The space agency head also stated that it would be done “without any ‘European friends’ with their tails tucked because of American shouting.”
Delay until at least 2026
Roscosmos responded to EU’s sanctions last month (February) by suspending launches and withdrawing more than 100 of its workers from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana’s Kourou (a town and district on the Atlantic coast).
ExoMars was originally planned for 2020 but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was set to launch in September 2020, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan by a Russian Proton rocket, which was taken down to the Martian soil by Russia’s Kazachok lander.
Getting the Rosalind Franklin rover to Mars will now be heavily delayed as the window to launch only comes around every two years.
After meeting in Paris on Friday, March 18, 2022, the ESA’s ruling council said its Director-General, Josef Aschbacher, will “carry out a fast-track industrial study to better define the available options for a way forward to implement the ExoMars rover mission”.
“This year the launch is gone,” Aschbacher disclosed in a press briefing. He said a launch is not possible now until at least 2026, adding that “cooperation with NASA is an option” that the ESA would look into.
According to the ESA, all of its missions, using Russia’s Soyuz rocket are also under suspension. They include two satellites for Europe’s Galileo GPS system, the Euclid space telescope mission, the European-Japanese EarthCARE observation satellite and a French military satellite.
ISS ‘stable and safe’
The ESA also noted that the search for alternatives to launch these missions will involve “a review of the Ariane 6 first exploitation flights”.
The first flight using the European launcher, which will replace the Ariane 5, is scheduled by the end of this year (2022) and a reshuffle could have knock-on effects for other planned missions.
Director-General of the ESA, Josef Aschbacher pointed out the importance of “establishing a very fast ramp-up” of the Ariane 6. Ariane 6 is a European expendable launch system currently under development since the early 2010s by ArianeGroup on behalf of the European Space Agency. He also said ESA would hold an extraordinary council meeting in the coming weeks for proposals on its upcoming missions.
Aschbacher said “we have to unravel” the work ESA has done with Russia, which began as the West was seeking closer ties with Moscow in the 1990s following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The International Space Station was one of the greatest symbols of post-Cold War cooperation between Russia and the West.
Head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin also warned that Western sanctions against Moscow could cause the International Space Station (ISS) to crash. This, he said, is vital for the station’s propulsion and attitude control. But, Aschbacher said pointed out that ISS operations are “stable and safe”, adding that “the astronauts are working nominally”.