Science

We must save the ExoMars mission – Science et Avenir

With the start of the war in Ukraine and the freezing of cooperation between Russian and European space agencies, the fate of the ExoMars mission was put on hold and even clearly in jeopardy. Actually, it was Russia, within the framework of this program, that was supposed to launch and land on the Red Planet the Rosalind Franklin rover, the first of its kind for Europe. Everything was ready for takeoff in September 2022 (and scheduled arrival in June 2023), while the Russian rover and the Kazachok lander were waiting to be sent to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan from the Thales Alenia facilities in Italy. But by decision of the European Space Agency (ESA) on March 17, 2022, everything was interrupted.

European rover Rosalind Franklin in several key figures. Credits: ESA

Several solutions considered

There were several options on the table back then: the hope that relations with Russia would warm up for a possible launch during the next filming window in 2024; find another partner, possibly the United States, to launch and land a rover on Mars; or even the development of purely European means, which seemed as complicated as they were costly, and could not reasonably be carried out before ten years. The final solution: simply abandon this project, which has been plagued by setbacks, additional costs and technical difficulties since the idea originated in the late 1990s at the Laboratory of Molecular Biophysics in Orléans under the influence of exobiologist André Braque. In fact, 1.8 billion euros have already been disbursed for this ambitious program.

Record Budget

However, ESA’s 22 member countries decided during a ministerial meeting held on November 22 and 23 in Paris not to store the Rosalind Franklin rover in a museum while building a new mission. In other words: give him new loans. Among the 16.9 billion euros that ESA will win over the next three years, a record corresponding to an increase of 17% compared to the previous ministerial meeting! –, 2.7 billion will indeed be allocated for space exploration”, which focuses on three areas: Low Earth Orbit, Moon and Mars.“, – explains the ESA press release. It details that “with the aim of studying Mars and with the active support of the scientific community, a decision was made to build a European lander designed to bring the mobile robot Rosalind Franklin to Earth”. search for possible traces of life in the ancient lakes of the Red Planet.

ESA will not start from scratch

So with the new €360 million expansion, Europe will build its own lander to try and join the United States and China in the very narrow club of space powers that have managed to place a robotic vehicle on the surface of Mars. Of course, it won’t start from scratch. ESA will indeed use some elements of the European experimental lander Schiaparelli, which crashed in 2016 on our red neighbor due to a computer error. It will also restore and use several systems installed on the Russian Kazachok lander, such as parachutes, radar, a radio communication system or an on-board computer.

Valuable help from the United States

A NASA expert on the subject will also provide valuable assistance. He must deliver, in fact, the brake engines for the final landing. As well as radioisotope thermal generators, powered by plutonium-238, to heat the platform on frosty Martian nights. And it’s up to the United States to provide a launcher, likely SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, even if that decision isn’t confirmed until next year. Ultimately, if all goes according to plan, the Rosalind Franklin rover should fly to Mars in 2028.

Possible traces of life preserved from an oxidizing atmosphere and cosmic rays

If ESA – and behind it a large community of researchers – is committed to supporting this project at all costs, it is because it is of great interest to exobiology. The Rosalind Franklin rover, about the size of a golf cart and weighing about 300 kg, is indeed equipped with nine scientific instruments, including four French laboratories, but above all, a drill that can search for possible traces of life at a depth of up to two meters. . “Therefore, they are protected from the planet’s oxidizing atmosphere and from cosmic radiation, which destroys organic molecules on the surface, which has never been done on Mars,” Frances Westol, who heads exobiological research, explained a few months ago to the journal Sciences et Avenir. group at the Orleans Center for Molecular Biophysics and has been working on this project for over twenty years.

The drilling system is located at the front of the rover. Credit: ESA.

The drilling rig is located at the front of the rover. Credits: ESA

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