Will European rover ever get to Mars?

ExoMars, a joint program of European and Russian space agencies, was supposed to send the first European rover to Mars in 2018. Now technical problems have forced the agencies to delay that mission.

MSSS/JPL-Cal­tech/NASA/Reuters
The European and Russian space agencies had planned to send a rover to Mars to join the American rovers Curiosity, shown here, and Opportunity by 2018. However, the ExoMars mission has been postponed until 2020 due to technical difficulties.

Equipment problems have pushed back from 2018 to 2020 a rover mission to the surface of Mars, called ExoMars, that is in joint development with European and Russian space agencies.

"Having assessed the possible ways to ensure successful mission implementation, the [ExoMars steering board] concluded that, taking into account the delays in European and Russian industrial activities and deliveries of the scientific payload, a launch in 2020 would be the best solution," the European Space Agency (ESA) announced on its website Monday. It had previously warned that the delay was likely.

The rover is the second phase of the ExoMars program. The first phase, Trace Gas Orbiter, launched in March. Once it reaches the Red Planet in October, and locks into orbit around it, the instrument will scour for signs of methane gas which could signal microbial life, according to Science.

The orbiter is also carrying a lander, Schiaparelli, which will attempt to land on Mars and to test important instruments in anticipation of the rover's landing, such as a parachute and a radar altimeter, a tool used to measure altitude.

But it is the second phase of ExoMars that is the most exciting. Its main objective is to find life, which it will attempt to do by drilling up to 6-1/2 feet beneath the Martian surface, where any evidence of past or present life on Mars is more likely to be found, as SpaceNews reports.

There is also a bit of a competitive angle to the successful landing of a rover on Mars by European countries, as it would make for the first non-American rover landing on Mars.

"The successful implementation of both ExoMars missions will allow Russia and Europe to jointly validate cutting-edge technologies for Mars entry, descent, and landing, for the control of surface assets, to develop new engineering concepts and service systems that can be used by other Solar System exploration missions, and to carry out novel science at Mars," said the ESA in Monday’s statement.

Russia joined the ExoMars project after NASA pulled out of the partnership with ESA in 2012. Its contribution to the nearly $1.4-billion program – now getting pricier because of delays – is rockets to deliver equipment for the two missions to Mars and the system that will be used to deliver the rover to the planet’s surface.

The country has recently cut its space program budget by 30 percent because of an economic crisis spurred by declining oil prices and Western sanctions over its actions in Ukraine. This means that Russia's space budget for 2016 to 2025 will be reduced to $29 billion. In contrast, NASA's budget for 2016 alone is $19.3 billion.

Rolf de Groot, head of ESA's robotic exploration coordination office, told SpaceNews Monday that Russia's economic problems are not responsible for the ExoMars delay.

"No, it has nothing to do with that," he said. "They are having severe budget cuts compared to last year, but this is not impacting ExoMars. ExoMars is still a high priority for them," said Dr. de Groot.

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