Troubled European rover still vital to search for life on the Red Planet

The stars didn’t align for Europe’s first ExoMars rover, but scientists still believe the aging rover could play a big role in answering one of the most important questions in Mars exploration: Was there ever life on the Red Planet?

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover is arguably the most vocal casualty of the space industry in Russia’s war in Ukraine. The rover was originally supposed to launch in 2018, but the rover was finally announced to be ready to launch (after several delays) this September on a Russian Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ended those plans.

ESA formally ended cooperation on the ExoMars mission with Russia in July, leaving the rover, conceived in 2004, once again in limbo and, more importantly, without a landing platform to place it on the surface of Mars. (This landing platform was built by Russia, which joined the ExoMars program in 2012 after leaving the original partner, NASA, in 2012.)

ESA has not yet decided on the fate of the mission. Having already spent $1.3 billion on the program, he will have to choose between completely scrapping the rover or shelling out another hefty sum to replace Russian components.

Related: A Brief History of Missions to Mars

In the case of the latter option, according to the most optimistic estimates, the ExoMars rover will leave Earth in 2028. For many European scientists, abandoning a mission should not be an option at all, and not just because of the investment. Even though NASA’s Perseverance rover is smashing its sample-collection goals, and plans for a mission to bring those samples to Earth are already underway, the aging ExoMars rover could do a lot for our understanding of Mars, they say. And some of these questions Stellar Perseverance actually cannot answer.

“[The rover’s instruments] will age a bit,” John Bridges, professor of planetary science at the University of Leicester in the UK, told we do not use the most advanced technologies. Even if we go by bike and not by the latest car, it doesn’t really matter, as long as we get there.”

Drill Promise

The biggest strength and scientific promise of the Rosalind Franklin ExoMars rover is its 6.6-foot (2 meters) drill rig, which some astrobiologists say may have a better chance of finding traces of past or present Martian life on Mars than the drill rig. cunning perseverance.

“Stone fragments collected by Perseverance are taken from the immediate surface. [of Mars]Susanne Schwenzer, an astrobiologist at the Open University in the UK, who is also an interdisciplinary scientist on the ExoMars mission and a member of the science teams for NASA’s Curiosity and Mars Sample Return missions, told surface is bombarded by galactic cosmic rays, and ultraviolet rays [from the sun]that break down organic materials.

The European rover ExoMars is equipped with a set of instruments designed to search for traces of life in the Martian soil. (Image credit: ESA)

Unlike Earth, Mars does not have a protective magnetic field and a very thin atmosphere, so there is nothing to filter this sterilizing radiation, some of which can penetrate several meters deep into Martian rocks.

“[The effects of the radiation] decreases exponentially, so the first centimeters [inches] suffered the most,” Schwenzer said.

That’s not to say Perseverance can’t find traces of life, just finding organic molecules in burnt surface layers may require more sophisticated scientific analysis, Schwenzer added.

“The advantage of the returned samples is that they will be in our labs here,” Schwenzer said. “If we discover something that we cannot answer with the tools we have, we can wait until the right technology is developed. It took until the late 1990s to find water in the Apollo samples because they didn’t have the right tools at the time.”

The deep excavations for which the ExoMars rover was built could actually help scientists understand Perseverance rocks and the changes they have undergone due to the bombardment of radiation.

“[The ExoMars rover] will help us understand how organic matter decomposes with depth or does not decompose and persists in deeper layers,” said Schwenzer.

Europe’s wrong turn

Bridges agrees with Schwenzer. But there are other reasons why a sequel to ExoMars should be the only option, he says. A generation of European scientists have tied their careers to this mission, which may have always been something of a moon shot for Europe, since its inception in 2004.

“When we launched ExoMars in 2004, it was far from possible [of ESA and the European space industry] To do this,” Bridges said. “So we invited the Americans in to put him down, and when the Americans left, the ESA just looked around and the Russians raised their hand and it was done.”

Bridges calls the partnership with Russia, hastily orchestrated by ESA management led by CEO Jean-Jacques Dorden in 2012, a “strategic mistake”.

“I think then we should have pressed the pause button and had a tougher discussion in the European community about what we are going to do,” he said.

At that time, two years remained before the start of the conflict in Ukraine, and Russia was already guilty of unleashing a bloody war in Georgia. (will open in a new tab); his actions in that Caucasian country at the time were overwhelmingly ignored by the international community.

“There is frustration and disappointment because so much work has been put into ExoMars,” Bridges said. “Instruments, scientific groups. But we should probably continue to stick with it and try to recoup all these scientific investments, and not just throw up our hands in frustration and walk away from it.”

The ExoMars landing site on the Oxia Plain is an ancient area that may contain traces of past life. (Image credit: ESA)

Call to confirm life on Mars

Schwenzer adds that to give a definitive answer to the big question of whether there has ever been life on Mars, scientists would like to look at as much data as possible.

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” Schwenzer said, quoting renowned astrobiologist Carl Sagan. “We can’t just find one molecule that is normally produced by life on Earth and claim that we have found life on Mars. for that we need all the information we can get, not just from one mission.”

The planned ExoMars landing site at Oxia Planum, an ancient clay-rich basin near the northern Tropic of Mars, has been carefully chosen by a pan-European scientific consortium as it offers the best conditions for preserving traces of life.

Bridges said the fine-grained sediment basin formed about 4 billion years ago has a drainage area of ​​thousands of miles where water accumulated in the past.

“This is a completely different area than the Jezero crater. [where Perseverance roams]Bridges said. “But just because we saw one, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go for the other. We’ve still only explored a tiny part of the Martian surface, and we shouldn’t fall into the trap of assuming we’ve seen it, done it.”

lagging behind

The ExoMars conundrum, Bridges believes, exposes weaknesses in ESA’s strategy and undermines the agency’s ambition to become the world-class player it wants to be.

ESA, a partnership of 22 European member states, was knocked to the surface of Mars by China, which only revealed its plans for the Zhurong rover in 2014. Chinese landers, including the famous Yutu rover, have dominated lunar exploration in the past decade. Meanwhile, the Japanese space agency JAXA has created a legacy by returning samples from asteroids.

“ESA has a problem that they can dangle a little in the wind,” Bridges said. “If external factors change, it seems that they do not have enough size or strength to withstand blows. JAXA, or the National Space Administration of China, who know exactly what they want and just jump in and do it.”

ESA is currently evaluating variants of the ExoMars rover that it will present to its member states later this year. Among the possibilities, Bridges said, is a return to the original NASA partner, which could land the rover using its proven technology, but with significant financial input from ESA.

NASA’s recent decision to phase out the European sample-delivery rover and replace it with NASA-built helicopters could provide an incentive to continue working on the troubled ExoMars.

Follow Tereza Pultarova on Twitter @TerezaPultarova. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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