Europe considering delaying ExoMars2020 two years


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The Europe Space Agency (ESA) is considering delaying the launch of its ExoMars2020 Mars rover two years because of continuing problems with its parachutes.

According to a spokesperson for the European Space Agency (ESA), a “working-level review” for the project was held among ESA and Roscosmos officials in late January, and a preliminary assessment was forwarded to the respective heads of the space agencies, Jan Wörner of ESA and Dmitry Rogozin of Roscosmos, on February 3. “They instructed the respective inspectors general and program chiefs to submit an updated plan and schedule covering all the remaining activities necessary for an authorization to launch,” the ESA spokesperson said. “This plan will be examined by the two agency heads who will meet on 12 March to jointly agree the next steps.”

It appears that the European and Russian officials will make a public announcement about ExoMars next month. Their options include pressing ahead with a launch this year or delaying two years until the next favorable window for a launch to Mars opens. Given multiple issues with the mission, a source said a delay is the most likely option.

The parachutes are not the only problem. They have just discovered during thermal testing that the glue used in the the hinges of the rover’s solar panels comes unstuck.

In August 2019, when the parachute issues were first revealed (after much hemming and hawing by ESA officials), I predicted a 50-50 chance they’d delay. When in September 2019 the problems were found to be more serious than first admitted, I lowered the chances of meeting the 2020 launch date to less than 25%.

Right now I predict that the launch of ExoMars2020 will not occur this summer, but will be delayed until the next Martian launch window in 2022. You heard it here first.

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13 comments

  • Lee S

    I can only agree with you Bob… There is no doubt that this mission will be delayed AGAIN…. The delays to this rover mission have not popped up on your radar as often as NASA missions, but I’m guessing it’s about a decade or so.
    I remember watching a BBC program when Steve Squires ( original lead scientist on the Spirit and Opportunity rovers mission ) visited the ESA facility that was building thus rover, and when asked if he had any advice to give, he said something along the lines of “6 wheel steering… That saved us so many times”. Mars 2020 still has 4 wheel steering.
    I really hope this mission is a success, whatever the delays…. It’s science aims are actually more ambitious than NASA’s… But unfortunately I am skeptical about its chances of even landing fit and healthy. The fact it’s due to launch in the next couple of months, and it doesn’t even have it’s parachute issue 100% fixed ( even after NASA help), and now they have just figured out that some glue might melt ( I mean …. Really?;?) Doesn’t inspire me with confidence.

  • Richard M

    Once the parachute problems started coming to light last year, I think many of us have had the sinking feeling that ExoMars would miss this launch window. Sadly, I think your prediction is about to come true, Bob.

    But unfortunate as this is, it is better to take the time to really *fix* the problems, and be sure they have them fixed – especially since they don’t have JPL’s massive fund of experience with a mission like this. ExoMars cost over 1.3 billion euros to develop, and there’s no point in just using that money to create another impact crater on the Red Planet. Mars isn’t going anywhere.

    P.S. This does make you wonder what the propects for success for the Chinese lander mission launching this year – we’ve heard virtually nothing about it. They’ll likely make it to orbit. The surface is another story.

  • Col Beausaber

    1. “using that money to create another impact crater on the Red Planet” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjiGH9QNiU 2. To heck with wheels, this Auld Tanker sez caterpillar tracks forever ! 3. When is ESA paying the US treasury for its use of JPL to help solve its parachute problem…

  • Ian C.

    What interests me is how one stores equipment and payloads for a 26 months (or perhaps 52 months) delay of Mars missions. Lubricants can dry out (weren’t there cases where stored equipment developed issues that were discovered shortly before reactivation?), stuff can be stolen or deteriorates through wrong environmental conditions, talent can move away, tech becomes dated and updates/upgrades might require new certification and so on. Any guidelines or literature or at least the right key words for me to follow up on?

  • Ian C: Your question goes to the very heart of why anyone builds a space station in Earth orbit. We don’t do it as a science lab. We do it because it functions as a prototype interplanetary space station, and Wernher von Braun so carefully articulated in the 1950s, and I spent an entire book describing in 2003 (Leaving Earth)

    Both Mir and ISS are testbeds for figuring out the technical issues of keeping a spaceship and its cargo functionable for a very long time in space. And in a sense, so are all our orbiting satellites and scientific probes.

    While once it was difficult to keep a satellite functioning for longer than a year, now builders routinely expect them to last 15 to 20 years.

  • Ian C.

    Bob, I’m here more concerned about equipment/payloads that need to be stored away (on Earth) because the mission got delayed. What about my (fictional) payload that my team developed for such a Mars mission that misses the launch window? The upside is that I know that delays occur in 26 months steps and I can decide whether to build modifications in the meantime. The downsides are that I need to store (some of) it in suitable conditions and keep it safe and secure (what about liabilities, insurance, and storage space prices?), keep export control and compliance happy (things may expire or change), keep it funded, keep the talent from moving away to other projects (26 months and perhaps 52 months is still a long time for people who have to develop their careers). There certainly exist experiences and perhaps best practices for such (launch-window-constrained) cases.

  • Edward

    Ian C. wrote: “What interests me is how one stores equipment and payloads for a 26 months (or perhaps 52 months) delay of Mars missions.

    Yet another challenge in the design and construction of space hardware.

    Lubricants are usually avoided, largely because if they dry out — are volatile — then they will also evaporate in space and recondense all over everything, including the optical surfaces. Lenses get fuzzy, thermal surfaces change their radiative characteristics, solar cells don’t collect quite as much energy due to reflections from the condensates, etc. What a mess!

    There are vacuum grade lubricants, if other means cannot be used, but there are materials that can be chosen to reduce friction or to prevent other problems. I used teflon on at least one motion mechanism, but there are better materials, too (teflon squishes out of place under pressure, so my use was on a one-use mechanism triggered immediately after launch on a suborbital mission that splashed into the ocean after use).

    Issues can develop after storage. The first solar arrays deployed on ISS did not deploy smoothly, because they sort of stuck together during storage, which was required due to delays in the launch schedule.

    If the hardware is completely built and tested, then it can often be stored in enclosures, such as its shipping container, which is environmentally controlled, and the ground support equipment locked away in storage, too. However, ExoMars2020 will still require work and perhaps some testing, so it should not be too vulnerable to cannibalization, with all those eyes on it. The cleanroom space is probably fairly expensive, but the real expense is probably in the staff and talent working on the project. I expect that since it is a government project that there is little or no insurance on it, meaning that if something goes terribly wrong then the project ends rather than gets rebuilt.

    The problem of losing important and necessary talent is one of the reasons why storage can be expensive. The talent could work on other projects, with the understanding that the first project will grab them back in the future, but that limitation makes them less valuable to the other project. For ExoMars2020, I expect most of the talent will remain on the charge number (payroll charged to the project) as they work on the problems that need solutions. This brings up the question for management, do they slow-walk the solutions, using less staff for the next two years, or do they finish the solutions quickly and put everything in storage? (Orion was slow-walked, so that they kept the talent and knowledge during the more-than-a-decade that it is taking SLS to come online.)

    I expect that they will not update any technology that becomes superseded by newer tech (some may already have been), as that would likely cause further delays. There is a possibility that some of the hardware will require refurbishment after a two-year storage. I expect that they will perform regular “health checks” on most or all of the electronics, so that they can repair anything that goes out of spec before it is too late and they have to delay yet another two years.

    Robert,
    It has been a while since I read your book “Universe in a Mirror,” and I don’t have my copy with me. Did you write much about the problems of the storage of Hubble while it awaited the Space Shuttle to resume flights?
    https://behindtheblack.com/books/the-universe-in-a-mirror/

  • Ian C: Edward I think answers your question quite well. Note that InSight was delayed two years for similar reasons that might delay ExoMars2020. The French had been building the seismometer, and couldn’t hack it. NASA fired them and gave the job to JPL.

    That delay cost $150 million, money that further squeezed NASA’s planetary budget, already hard pressed because of money taken from it to fund Webb overages.

  • Edward: I did not discuss the cost or storage issues when Hubble was delayed. What I did note was that the delay was actually a blessing in disguise, as they had many issues that in the end required the extra time to iron out.

    Much the same with ExoMars2020 it seems.

  • Ian C.

    Edward, good points, thanks. I expect in the near future, with the more industrialized approach to many things space vs. the tailor-made equipment we’ve had so far, that we’ll see reductions in cost (and associated costs like insurance and maintenance/upgrades during storage). Still, I need to find out what costs and other consequences result from delays and how to deal with them. I appreciate additional input.

    Bob, so the benefit of delays might be time for technology refinement. Any others you can think of?

  • Chris

    Edward, thanks for the sage insight.

    I worked on one piece of flight hardware in my career. It was one of two I knew of that we produced. There were also optical components that we made but no other assemblies.
    This project was “resurrected” from an earlier project. As I recall there were concerns in re-qualifying the flight hardware, specifically the five actuators for a focusing mechanism. We had to engage the original manufacturer for this.
    One of the things I took away from this is the concept of “flight hardware” or things (components and assemblies) that are qualified. If something failed and broke, a simple swap out was not allowed. You had to understand the “tree”that qualified that part and it’s relationship to the overall unit. The costs here could be prohibitive. This also points to not updating to newer tech while waiting in a delay.
    Our project was to fly on the shuttle, in the bay. I believe this brought greater scrutiny and qualification requirements with it. Being an optical piece of equipment, outgassing material and then deposition on the optics was an issue.
    Our project never flew due to a cracked mirror on another assembly that sunk the project. That was very disappointing (thinking we would drive down for the launch) but the experience was well worth it.
    That was long ago and far away….

  • mkent

    What interests me is how one stores equipment and payloads for a 26 months (or perhaps 52 months) delay of Mars missions.

    Ian C.: As your comment hints at, this is a good program for which to look into this. ExoMars 2020 was originally ExoMars 2018. It was already delayed by two years earlier.

    There is reason for concern. Galileo was put into storage for several years after the Challenger accident. It is thought by many that that storage contributed to the stuck high-gain antenna that severely limited the amount of data that Galileo could ultimately download to Earth.

  • Edward

    Chris,
    Sorry to hear that your instrument did not get to fly after all. Worse, it was due to something outside your control.

    Learning the complications that come from flight hardware that cannot be repaired after launch and is susceptible to a harsh environment* took me a little time, too, in my youth. After all that expense, it has to work right, otherwise we get nothing for the money (InSight, on Mars, is now trying to work around a seemingly insurmountable problem). Everyone gets serious about reliability, traceability, and record keeping. If it goes wrong on orbit, we want to know why, to prevent similar problems in the future. This is one of the reasons that so many in the industry are shocked that SpaceX is doing outdoor construction of even their test rockets. If something fails, it adds to the list of possible causes. SpaceX has a very different philosophy for their development projects, in which they are willing to take risks with the test hardware and are willing to accept lower performance of the end item in order to get the service generating revenue sooner rather than later and for the price tag of a launch to be lower rather than higher.

    I worked on the Atmospheric X-ray Imaging Spectrometer (AXIS) instrument (one of the Particle Environment Monitor experiments) on the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) satellite that was launched on the Space Shuttle. Our collimators for the x-rays entering the instrument had sharp corners, and reasonably early in the process (maybe just after the critical design review) the astronauts asked us to change the design to round them out, just in case they had to do an EVA and had to go into the vicinity of the AXIS instrument and a suit pressed up against a collimator, they didn’t want to rip open the suit on a sharp corner. A lot of thought goes into consideration of even the most unlikely of events.

    Robert,
    A surprising amount of flight hardware could actually use more work. It is a bit like art, in that once the time runs out and they are good enough, then they are “abandoned” (as Leonardo da Vinci famously put it), or more correctly: delivered to the customer. There is never enough time or money to make either one perfect. The AXIS instrument I mentioned ran its detectors a few degrees warmer than the specification. If we had had more time, then we probably would have done more to fix that problem. As it was, the warmer temperature did not result in much noise in the signal, so it went well anyway.

    * Who knew that the vacuum of space could be such a harsh environment. It’s worse than a steel ship in a salty ocean — with barnacles! At least the ships can be repaired and their barnacles scraped, on occasion.

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