The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have gone interplanetary as the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia’s Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities announced they were postponing a planned mission to Mars.
The announcement came on Thursday, March 12, amid a global crackdown on business and social activities meant to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
The joint effort by the 22 member states of the ESA and Roscosmos is intended to put a rover on Mars to study signs of life. The United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has already successfully landed four rovers on Mars and is currently preparing to launch a fifth.
The mission to Mars
As reported by the AP, global travel restrictions enacted to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were partially to blame for postponing what is known as the ExoMars mission. The mission’s launch date has now been delayed from later this year to 2022.
The mission will land a European rover, named Rosalind Franklin, on Mars alongside a Russian-built surface platform, called Kazachok. The joint mission will involve the use of a carrier module designed by the ESA. The Russian-designed Proton rocket will launch the entire endeavor into space.
The primary objective of the mission is to find “well-preserved organic material” as a means of studying the biological history of Mars. Using a drill, the rover will extract materials from below the surface of the planet where “biomarkers,” i.e. evidence of life, are more likely to be found.
While the postponement isn’t directly a result of the coronavirus outbreak, the limitations placed on travel has made it difficult for the mission engineers to complete important work necessary to ensure a successful mission.
A bumpy landing on Mars
Thursday’s postponement was not the first roadblock for ExoMars 2022 (previously ExoMars 2020).
The initial agreement between the two space agencies was signed on March 14, 2013, when the involved parties met at the ESA headquarters in Paris, France. At that time, the agencies announced two launch dates for the mission, one in 2016 and the next in 2018.
The 2016 launch was meant to gauge the mission’s ability to land on the Red Planet with a test Mars lander. Unfortunately, that lander, known as Schiaparelli, crashed as it descended to the planet on October 19.
A month after the crash, the agency explained the failure was due to faulty data collected by its inertial measurement unit. As a result, the lander launched its parachute and fired its braking thrusters too soon.
Though Schiaparelli managed to send back some helpful data before crashing, there were fears the failure would cost the mission necessary funding. However, in December 2016, the ESA secured US$464 million (€436 million) to continue the mission.
Prior to Schiaparelli’s crash, the 2018 launch had previously been delayed until 2020 due to its lander’s design issues. Yet, in 2019, it appeared unlikely that the 2020 launch date would be achieved after two necessary parachutes failed in “dress rehearsal” tests.
Now that it’s been pushed back to 2022, it remains to be seen if the extra time will be sufficient to address the issues, or if the COVID-19 pandemic will remain a roadblock.
Who are the ESA and Roscosmos?
The ESA launched in 1975 with 11 founding European member states: Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. When the ExoMars mission was first announced, there were 20 member states, with Estonia and Hungary joining in 2015.
The agency is “dedicated to the peaceful exploration and use of space for the benefit of everyone.” The financial and technological burden of space exploration, as well as the creation and maintenance of satellites, is shared by the member states.
Roscosmos has existed in its current form as a state corporation since 2015. Prior to being dissolved by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the nation’s space program was under the Federal Space Agency Roscosmos.
The change from a federal agency to a state-owned corporation was an attempt to strengthen Russia’s space program in the wake of technological and financial setbacks.
Roscosmos uses the development of rocket technology and scientific advancements as a means of “strengthening Russia’s defense and ensuring national security.”
NASA’s plans for Mars
Since 1997, NASA has landed four rovers on Mars. The first was Sojourner, followed by Spirit and Opportunity, both in 2004. The final NASA rover to land on MARS was Curiosity on August 5, 2012. The rovers have sent troves of data readings back to NASA, though only Curiosity continues to transmit at this point.
NASA is set on bringing physical materials back from the planet, not just data. To accomplish this, the agency is set to launch the Mars 2020 rover in July of this year. That rover is designed to collect samples so they can be transported back to Earth.
So far, none of the rovers that have landed on Mars have had the ability to relaunch from the planet and return to Earth.
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