This article was originally published on The conversation. (opens in a new tab) The publication contributed the article to Space.com’s Expert Voices: Editorials and Perspectives.
Andre Coates (opens in a new tab)Professor of Physics, Deputy Director (Solar System) at Mullard Space Science Laboratory, UCL
Just a few months ago, we expected to launch our Rosalind Franklin rover to Mars in September as part of the ExoMars mission, a collaboration between Europe and Russia. The landing was planned (opens in a new tab) for June 2023. Everything was ready: the rover, the operations team and the enthusiastic scientists.
Final preparations began on February 21, with part of our team traveling to Turin, Italy to perform final alignment and calibration tests. Everything was going well, although some team members were slightly delayed by Storm Eunice in the UK. Three days later, however, they had finished the job, leaving some wonderful data, which would help us decide where Rosalind would drill on Mars. The industry team began packaging the rover, which was ready to be shipped to the launch site.
Then, a storm far more powerful and tragic than Eunice hit the Ukraine: the Russian invasion. The situation evolved in the days and weeks that followed, leading to a series of emergency meetings. On March 17, the Council and Member States of the European Space Agency (ESA) decided to suspend our mission (opens in a new tab). We won’t know for sure what happens next until a study by ESA and industry partners reports in July – but there are reasons for optimism.
Related: The most daring Martian missions in history
The Rosalind Franklin rover is unique among all the rovers planned for Mars. It can drill deeper than any before – up to 6.5 feet (2 meters) below hard surface. This is important because the subsoil is shielded from harmful radiation and therefore could contain signs of past or present life.
Rosalind’s instruments include our PanCam, which is a camera that will do geology and atmospheric science on Mars – supplemented by the other cameras and an underwater sounding radar. Rosalind will also collect pristine samples below the surface which will be deposited in the “analytical drawer”, where three instruments will perform mineralogy and search for signs of life.
3.8 billion years ago, when life was emerging on Earth, Mars was also habitable. There is evidence of orbiters and water landers on the surface then – there would have been clouds, rain and a thick atmosphere. There was also a global protective magnetic field and volcanoes. This means that Mars basically had all the right ingredients for life – carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. If life emerged there as it did on Earth, we were well on our way to finding it.
The climate has changed (opens in a new tab) since Mars lost its magnetic field 3.8 billion years ago. The planet is now dry, cold, has a thin atmosphere and a surface hostile to life. But below the surface, some living species may have survived, or remnants of them could be preserved.
Other missions to Mars are also looking for life. NASA’s incredible Perseverance rover landed in February 2021 (opens in a new tab). Its scientists are partly guided by images from a NASA helicopter on the planet, called Ingenuity, and it recently reached an ancient river delta.
Perseverance is collecting samples from the Jezero crater, ready to be brought back to powerful laboratories on Earth by Mars sample return missions (opens in a new tab). The results will hopefully complement those of Rosalind Franklin – who will examine deeper samples from a different, slightly older site, Oxia Planum, where there is also ample evidence of an aquatic past.
Options for Rosalind
Russia was supposed to help launch Rosalind Franklin on one of its rockets. While a European-built spacecraft would then take it to Mars, a Russian-built platform would again be needed to land it. Russia was also supposed to provide radioactive heaters to keep the rover’s batteries warm during cold Martian nights.
Now the ESA is considering the options. Since pursuit with Russia in 2024 is highly unlikely, the main possibilities are either ESA going it alone or teaming up with a partner such as NASA. ESA’s new Ariane-6 rocket (opens in a new tab), which is almost ready, could help launch the rover, just like a SpaceX rocket. For the lander and heaters, ESA should develop them alone or in collaboration with NASA, adapting existing technology.
So it could take some time. Also, due to the way the planets orbit the sun, there are only opportunities for launches to Mars every two years: in 2024, 2026, etc. I expect 2028 to be the most likely for our mission, but it will take hard work. The positive thing is that ESA and Member States are still eager to move forward, and we look forward to the launch when it does.
Finally, life changed for Rosalind Franklin’s team on February 24. I’ve been working on the mission since 2003, when we first proposed a camera system for what became ExoMars. We had already provided the “stereo camera system” for ESA’s ill-fated Beagle 2, which nearly worked when it landed on Christmas Day 2003. But orbiter footage showed later than the last solar panel hadn’t fully deployed, so communications with Earth were impossible (opens in a new tab). The wait for Martian surface data for our team continues.
There is no escaping the huge disappointment we felt when the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover we had been working on for nearly 20 years was suspended. But it was ultimately a necessary and understandable step, and we now look forward to a future launch.
It’s still cutting edge science, and it will be for the rest of this decade. Due to particularly deep drilling, Rosalind Franklin could still be the first mission to find signs of life (opens in a new tab) in the space.
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