Just a few Months ago we confidently expected to take our rover Rosalind Franklin to Mars in September as part of the ExoMars mission, a cooperation between Europe and Russia. Landing was scheduled for June 2023. Everything was ready: the rover, the surgical team and the eager scientists.
Final preparations began on February 21st when part of our team traveled to Turin, Italy, to conduct the final alignment and calibration tests. All went well although some of the team were slightly delayed by Storm Eunice in the UK. However, three days later they had completed the work and left some wonderful data that would help us decide where Rosalind would drill on Mars. The industry team began packing the rover ready for shipment to the launch site.
Then a storm far more powerful and tragic than Eunice swept across Ukraine: Russia’s invasion.
The situation evolved over the next few days and weeks, 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. We won’t know for sure what happens next until a study by ESA and industry partners reports in July – but there is cause for optimism.
The search for subterranean life on Mars
The Rosalind Franklin rover is unique among all rovers planned for Mars. It can drill deeper than ever before – up to 2 meters below the rough surface. This is important as the substrate is protected from harmful radiation and could therefore contain signs of past or present life.
Rosalind’s instruments include our PanCam, a camera that will conduct geological and atmospheric science on Mars – complemented by the other cameras and a subsurface-probing radar. Rosalind will also collect pristine subsurface samples to be deposited in the “analysis drawer” where three instruments will perform mineralogy and look for signs of life.
Mars was also habitable about 3.8 billion years ago, when life arose on Earth. There are hints of water on the surface from orbiters and landers back then – there would have been clouds, rain and a dense atmosphere. There was also a global protective magnetic field and volcanoes. This means that Mars essentially had all the right ingredients for life – carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulphur. If life arose there as it did on Earth, we were on track to find it.
However, the climate has changed significantly since Mars lost its magnetic field 3.8 billion years ago. The planet is now dry, cold, with a thin atmosphere and a hostile surface. But beneath the surface, some living species may have survived, or their remains may be conserved.
Other missions to Mars are also looking for life. The amazing NASA rover Perseverance landed in February 2021. Its scientists, guided in part by images from a NASA helicopter on the planet called Ingenuity, recently reached an ancient river delta.
Perseverance is collecting samples from Jezero Crater ready to be taken back to powerful laboratories on Earth by the Mars sample return missions. The results will hopefully complement those from Rosalind Franklin – who will be examining deeper samples from a different and slightly older location, Oxia Planum, which also has ample evidence of a watery past.
The lonely road to Mars
Russia should help launch Rosalind Franklin with one of its rockets. While a European-built spacecraft would then take it to Mars, again a Russian-built platform would be required to land it. Russia was also to supply radioactive heaters to keep the rover’s batteries warm on the cold Martian nights.
ESA is now examining options. Given that a sequel with Russia in 2024 is highly unlikely, the main option is to either go ESA alone or team up with a partner like NASA. ESA’s new Ariane 6 rocket, which is almost ready, could help launch the rover, as could a SpaceX rocket. For the lander and heaters, ESA would have to develop them alone or in collaboration with NASA by adapting existing technology.
So it might take a while. Additionally, due to the way the planets orbit the sun, there are only opportunities for launches to Mars every two years: 2024, 2026, and so on. My expectation is that 2028 is the most likely for our mission, but it will take hard work. On the positive side, ESA and member states are still keen to move forward and we look forward to launching whenever that may be.
Finally, life changed for Rosalind Franklin’s team on February 24th. I’ve been working on the mission since 2003, when we first proposed a camera system for what later became ExoMars. We had already supplied the ‘stereo camera system’ for ESA’s ill-fated Beagle 2, which was almost working when it landed on Christmas Day 2003. But orbiter images later showed that the last solar panel was not fully deployed, so communications with Earth were impossible. The wait for data from the surface of Mars for our team continues.
We cannot escape the great disappointment we felt when the ExoMars rover Rosalind Franklin, which we had been working on for almost 20 years, was abandoned. But it was ultimately a necessary and understandable step, and we now look forward to a future launch.
This is still cutting edge science and will be for the rest of this decade. Because of the uniquely deep drilling, Rosalind Franklin may still be the first mission to find signs of life in space.
This article was originally published on The conversation through Andrew Coates at UCL. Read the original article here.