NASA and the European Space Agency signed an agreement today formalizing NASA’s expanded role in ESA’s Rosalind Frankin Mars rover program, part of what was once the European-Russian ExoMars project. ESA terminated its cooperation with Russia on ExoMars immediately after Russia invaded Ukraine. NASA already was contributing a scientific instrument and now will replace Russia in providing radioisotope heating units, part of the propulsion system for landing, and launch.

Nicky Fox, the head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, and her ESA counterpart Daniel Neuenschwander signed the agreement at ESA headquarters in Paris today.

NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate Nicky Fox and ESA’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration Daniel Neuenschwander sign an agreement on the Rosalind Franklin mission at ESA’s headquarters in Paris, France on May 16, 2024. Credits: ESA/Damien Dos Santos

Named after the British scientist who contributed to the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA, Rosalind Frankin will be Europe’s first rover on Mars.

The rover is the second half of the ExoMars program that was a partnership between ESA and Russia’s space agency Roscosmos. The first half was the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) that entered orbit around Mars in 2016 and continues to operate today. In addition to scientific instruments to study the martian atmosphere and a communications system to relay signals between the surface and Earth, ExoMars TGO carried an experimental European lander, Schiaparelli. Unfortunately it did not survive the landing.

Ironically, ESA and Russia ended up as partners on ExoMars because NASA withdrew in 2012 due to budget constraints. Russia stepped in to fill NASA’s shoes. Now NASA is replacing Russia as ESA’s partner for the second part of the program.

Russia built the lander to deliver the Rosalind Frankin rover to the surface and was also to provide radioisotope heating units to keep it warm as well as launch on a Proton rocket. Today’s announcement said NASA now will would provide the heating units, “elements of the propulsion system needed to land on Mars,” and launch. The launch vehicle was not specified.

ExoMars stands for “Exobiology on Mars” and the rover will be the first to use a drill capable of penetrating 2 meters (6.6 feet) into the surface to search for signs of ancient life. The rover also has a ground penetrating radar that can see 3 meters (9.8 feet) underground and other scientific instruments. One is the Mars Organic Molecular Analyzer (MOMA) developed by NASA in partnership with the French and German space agencies.

The launch originally was supposed to take place in 2020, but slipped to September 2022.  On February 24, 2022, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, the lander and rover were integrated together in Turin, Italy about to be shipped to the launch site in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

ESA immediately ended or suspended its cooperation with Russia across a range of space activities, including ExoMars. The lander/rover remained in Turin.

ESA turned to NASA for help. The two agencies are long-standing partners on both science and human spaceflight missions.

Although their Mars cooperation fell apart in 2012, NASA and ESA already had decided to team up again for the Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission to bring samples of Mars back to Earth. In 2022, NASA’s science budget was growing and NASA clearly wanted to help get Rosalind Franklin to Mars in addition to proceeding with MSR.

The outlook was favorable at the time, but the budget turmoil that began last year has put the $11 billion MSR mission in peril. For now, the two agencies seem focused on Rosalind Franklin, which is much further along in development and will cost U.S. taxpayers a comparatively modest $305 million over the next four years until launch in 2028.

Source: NASA FY2025 budget request documentation.

Whether Congress will appropriate that funding remains to be seen. With the strains on NASA’s budget, nothing can be taken for granted.

Today, however, the two space agencies showed their commitment to launching the rover in 2028. In a statement, Fox said: “The Rosalind Franklin rover’s unique drilling capabilities and onboard samples laboratory have outstanding scientific value for humanity’s search for evidence of past life on Mars.”

She added that NASA supports “the strong partnership between the United States and Europe to explore the unknown in our solar system and beyond.” That sentiment harkens back to the early days of the Biden Administration when NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars.

Perseverance is the first part of MSR, collecting the samples that will be returned to Earth. One of the instruments onboard is France’s SuperCam that’s analyzing the chemisty and mineralogy of rocks and soil. Perseverance landed shortly after Biden took office and he praised U.S./European Mars exploration as an example of how internatonal space cooperation will “secure our futures together.”

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