ESA’s ExoMars rover (foreground) and Russia’s stationary surface science platform (background) were scheduled for launch in September 2022, arriving at Mars in June 2023. Credit: ESA

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the European Space Agency issued a statement acknowledging its joint robotic ExoMars mission with Russia is unlikely to launch in 2022.

This comes as a wave of sanctions and other punitive actions from nations and organizations around the world are being placed on the Russian Federation because of its unprovoked invasion into the second largest country in Europe.

“We are fully implementing sanctions imposed on Russia by our Member States,” reads an ESA statement on Feb. 28, 2022. “We are assessing the consequences on each of our ongoing programmes conducted in cooperation with the Russian state space agency Roscosmos and align our decisions to the decisions of our Member States in close coordination with industrial and international partners (in particular with NASA on the International Space Station).”

ESA is an organization consisting of 22 member states, some of which are part of the European Union.

ESA, while acknowledging the importance of sanctions imposed on the Russian government, confirmed that a launch in 2022 is “highly unlikely.”

We deplore the tragic events taking place in Ukraine, a crisis which escalated dramatically into war in recent days. Many difficult decisions are now being taken at ESA in consideration of the sanctions implemented by the governments of our Member States.

— Josef Aschbacher (@AschbacherJosef) February 28, 2022

While the ExoMars mission landing assembly is composed of segments contributed from various regions of the European Union, the descent module is Russian made, and the whole mission is planning on launching atop a Russian Proton-M rocket in Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in September 2022.

If the ExoMars mission misses its September 2022 launch date, it’ll have to wait until at least 2024 before the Earth-Mars minimum-energy trajectory window opens again. The mission was already delayed from 2020 because of technical issues related to the parachute system of the descent stage for the lander.

ExoMars is a joint Russia-ESA program. It’s first mission launched atop a Proton-M rocket in 2016 and consisted of the European Trace Gas Orbiter and test lander called Schiaparelli. The orbiter was successful while the test lander failed during its descent to Mars.

This second mission in the ExoMars program has the primary goal of sending the Rosalind Franklin rover to the surface of the planet. The flight hardware includes a cruise stage, a descent stage, the Kazachok surface platform and the rover. The mission is currently expected to launch into space and on a Russian Proton-M rocket.

The cruise stage is built by Germany and provides power, propulsion and navigation for the journey from Earth to Mars. Attached to that is a decent stage, which is built by Russia and uses European guidance, radar and navigation systems.

Inside the descent stage is the Russian-built Kazachok landing platform with the European-built Rosalind Franklin rover.

Once at Mars, the cruise and descent stage would separate and enter the Martian atmosphere.

The plan is for the descent stage’s heat shield to slow the vehicle enough to allow for its two parachutes to be used. One would open while moving at supersonic speeds while a second would deploy once a subsonic velocity has been reached.

After the heat shield falls away, the landing platform (with the rover) would fall away from the back shell of the descent stage and perform a propulsive touchdown on Mars.

If successful, ramps would deploy for the European-built rover to roll onto the surface of the Red Planet.

The Rosalind Franklin rover is expected to have a launch mass of about 680 pounds (310 kilograms) and is to be powered by solar arrays. Its primary mission is planned to last about seven months while searching for evidence of past life on Mars.

An illustration of the ExoMars program’s hardware. From left to right, the 2016 Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli lander, and the Rosalind Franklin rover, which now may not launch until 2024. Credit: ESA

While the launch is now likely to be postponed for several years, it is important to note that there are many uncertainties and the ever-changing situation in Ukraine is highly fluid.

In the Feb. 28 statement, ESA acknowledged that the current state of several of its programs remain unknown.

As the Russian State Space Corporation Roscosmos (the name of the Russian space agency) has recalled all of its employees from the European-controlled Kourou spaceport in South America, continuation of normal operations for many of its launch programs using the Soyuz ST rocket are now impossible.

“Regarding the Soyuz launch campaign from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, we take note of the Roscosmos decision to withdraw its workforce from Kourou,” the Feb. 28 statement continues. “We will consequently assess for each European institutional payload under our responsibility the appropriate launch service based notably on launch systems currently in operation and the upcoming Vega-C and Ariane 6 launchers.”

In response to the press release put out by ESA about the status of ExoMars and more, Dmitry Rogozin, director general of Roscosmos, sent out a tweet that says, according to Google Translate services, “The European Space Agency, to spite the Russian grandmother, decided to freeze off her ears.”

According to Katya Pavlushchenko on Twitter, this Russian metaphor suggests he believes the decision will harm ESA more than Roscosmos.

Before the current actions by Moscow, Russia’s space program was considered one of the biggest and most-important in the world, given its contributions to not only launch and on-orbit operations, but also interplanetary mission assistance.

It’s worth noting that without the Soyuz ST rocket, which provides medium-lift capabilities, ESA only has the heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket and the small-lift Vega-C, the latter of which uses Ukrainian-built engines for its upper stage.

The full scope of the impacts resulting from existing and future sanctions placed on Russia is still not fully known. However, relations between Russia and the rest of the world continue to degrade with each passing day.

Video courtesy of ESA

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