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ESA’s commitment to launch Franklin rover to Mars by ’28 will require U.S. participation

The Europeans Space Agency’s decision to spend $725 million over the next six years to launch its Rosalind Franklin rover to Mars by 2028 will not only require the United Kingdom to develop a Mars lander, it will require U.S. participation that has not yet been secured, including the donation of a launch vehicle.

The mission’s launch this year was canceled when Russia invaded the Ukraine, thus ending all of its scientific partnerships with Europe.

The mission, now slated for launch in 2028, will primarily replace the Russian components with European ones, with several exceptions. “We have expectations that the U.S. will also contribute to this, with a launcher, a braking engine and the RHUs, the radioisotope heating units,” he said. “But the majority of the future ExoMars mission is European.”

The launch rocket will be the most expensive U.S. contribution, and to get NASA to pay for the launch will require something in return from ESA, most likely guaranteed research use of the Franklin rover by American planetary scientists. Such a deal is similar to what Europe has gotten with both Hubble and Webb, where ESA contributes something and its scientists get a percentage of guaranteed observation time.

With a rover such an arrangement is more complicated, however, which is probably why the deal is not yet settled.

Conscious Choice cover

Now available in hardback and paperback as well as ebook!


From the press release: In this ground-breaking new history of early America, historian Robert Zimmerman not only exposes the lie behind The New York Times 1619 Project that falsely claims slavery is central to the history of the United States, he also provides profound lessons about the nature of human societies, lessons important for Americans today as well as for all future settlers on Mars and elsewhere in space.

Conscious Choice: The origins of slavery in America and why it matters today and for our future in outer space, is a riveting page-turning story that documents how slavery slowly became pervasive in the southern British colonies of North America, colonies founded by a people and culture that not only did not allow slavery but in every way were hostile to the practice.  
Conscious Choice does more however. In telling the tragic history of the Virginia colony and the rise of slavery there, Zimmerman lays out the proper path for creating healthy societies in places like the Moon and Mars.


“Zimmerman’s ground-breaking history provides every future generation the basic framework for establishing new societies on other worlds. We would be wise to heed what he says.” —Robert Zubrin, founder of founder of the Mars Society.


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  • John

    The plutonium for the RHUs seems like a taller order than the rocket. I thought we had a plutonium shortage and radioisotope power rationing. I seem to recall at some point we could build another mars rover or an outer solar system probe, but not both.

  • pzatchok

    If we were allowed to reconstitute our old fuel we would have enough for the next 100 years.

  • Jay

    Good questions John. The RHUs are small and do not use much fuel compared to an RTG and they don’t have any thermocouples because it is not producing electricity. Do a search for photos of it and you will be surprised by the size.
    I do not know if they increased production, but last year at Idaho National Laboratories (INL. I still call it INEL, Idaho National Engineering Laboratories from the 80’s and 90’s.) was given the job to make more fuel for RTGs and research new RTG designs.

  • Jay

    I too wish we could reprocess our fuels. Would you fill up your tank with ten gallons of fuel, use only one gallon, pump out and dispose the other nine gallons? That is what we are doing in the U.S. with our nuclear fuel.

  • Mitch S.

    From the linked article:
    “Europe also lacks the plutonium-238 used for RHUs… Supplying the RHUs would, in turn, require launch on a U.S. vehicle because the RHUs cannot be exported.”

    Would it really be impossible to get an ok to launch on a European rocket if one were available?
    Wonder what the original launch deal with the Russians was. Were they really going to launch it for free?
    No way it makes sense to launch on NASA’s rocket if and when one would be available.
    But in these days of private space setting up a launch might be the easiest part – try

  • Jay

    Mitch S.,
    ESA does not have a rocket to launch right now. I believe they have only one or two Araine-5 rockets and those are spoken for. If Ariane-6 works in the next two years, all of the flights are already spoken for with other missions.

    France and the UK both have the capability to make Pu-238. Must be a budget point with ESA?

    The original deal with the Russians was a Proton rocket, the lander, and the RHUs for the rover. The Russians were already late on schedule, over budget on their end and were asking ESA for more money. We just stepped in and took the deal.

  • Richard M

    In a way this seems only fair, since it was the Obama Adminisration’s decision to bail on ExoMars in 2013 (mainly, it claimed, to help pay for JWST cost overruns) that forced the ESA to turn to the Russians in the first place. Maybe this helps make up for that.

    This should still be a very solid science mission, and now we’ll get more immediate access to more of the science. I think it’s win-win all around. The real loser is Russia.

    “Europe also lacks the plutonium-238 used for RHUs… Supplying the RHUs would, in turn, require launch on a U.S. vehicle because the RHUs cannot be exported.”

    Would it really be impossible to get an ok to launch on a European rocket if one were available?

    It’s U.S. law, and like any law, it could, theoretically, be amended. But it would take some work, and anyway I suspect it’s as much an excuse as anything else for what was already a consensus between NASA and ESA leaders that letting the U.S. launch it was an easy layup for the US to help out financially. And anyway, the US is simply going to have a lot more launch capacity in 2028 no matter how well Ariane 6 is doing at that point.

    This launch won’t be bid out for another two years, at least, and there’s going to be more U.S. launch vehicles that could launch this mission by then besides Falcon Heavy: Starship, Vulcan-Centaur, and maybe even New Glenn. Some of them might even by certified. It will be a nice problem to have.

  • Richard M


    ESA does not have a rocket to launch right now. I believe they have only one or two Araine-5 rockets and those are spoken for.

    You are correct: There are two remaining Ariane 5 rockets. These will launch over the next five months as things stand now.

    Ariane 6’s debut has been pushed back to 4Q 2023 NET, which of course pretty certainly means it’s not going to launch until 2024. It’s a real nightmare now for ESA and the Europeans generally. With the loss of Soyuz, they really are stuck.

    As I noted above, NASA won’t bid this launch out until 2024 – and the mission won’t launch until 2028 – but we can be confident now that the U.S. is simply going to have a lot more (and a lot less expensive) heavy lift launch capacity than Ariane anyway.

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