Scientists release detailed geological map of the landing site for Europe’s Franklin rover

Low resolution cropped section of map
Click for original image.

Scientists today released a new high resolution and very detailed geological map of the landing site for Europe’s Franklin rover, produced using orbital data from the U.S.’S Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter.

A very low resolution version of the map is to the right.

The work was divided into 134 one-square-kilometre areas, so that the [80-person] team could fully cover the estimated landing area. Scientists used a web-based system that allowed everyone to work on the map in parallel. The software was provided by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and set up at ESA [European Space Agency]. Data came from the Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS) onboard the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter and several instruments on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), including the HiRISE camera, which returns images from Mars orbit at 25 cm per pixel.

The mapping leads then pieced together the information on all the areas to form a coherent map that shows the geology of the landing site in unprecedented detail. The map includes the main types of bedrock, and structures with distinct shapes like ridges and craters. It even features the material that rests on top, for example blown by the wind, or thrown long distances when meteorites impacted the surface.

The result is the highest resolution map of Oxia Planum yet, created at a scale of 1:25 000, by which every centimetre equals 250 metres on the martian surface. An average drive of 25 to 50 metres a day for Rosalind Franklin would be one to two milimetres on the map.

The team had the extra time to compile this map because the launch of Franklin to Mars was delayed a number of times because of engineering issues and the Ukraine War, which ended the Europe’s partnership with Russia, requiring ESA to find other means to launch and land the rover.

ESA makes official the split with Russia

At a press conference yesterday officials from the European Space Agency (ESA) officially announced that the partnership with Russia to launch its Franklin rover to Mars has ended, and the launch will not happen in ’22.

The program is not cancelled, but “suspended.” ESA is looking for alternatives to get its Rosalind Franklin rover to the Red Planet. Earth and Mars are correctly aligned for launches only every 26 months, so the next opportunities are in 2024, 2026, and 2028. Aschbacher said it is not feasible to be ready by 2024, so it will be one of the later dates.

Since Russia had been providing both the launch rocket and Mars lander, ESA cannot simply find a different rocket. It needs to come up with its own lander, or find someone else to build it. For example, one of many new private American companies building lunar landers for NASA might be able do it, though ESA would likely prefer a European company. If it did decide to go with an American company, it would certainly not hire one until it succeeds in completing successfully at least one planetary landing.

The officials also outlined ESA’s need to find new launch rockets for many other missions it had planned to launch on Russia’s Soyuz-2 rocket. That need will also be an opportunity for American rocket companies, but more significantly it could be a blessing for Arianespace’s Ariane 6 rocket. The Ariane 6 has struggled to find customers because of its high cost. The loss of Russia as a launch option will likely drive some ESA business to it.

Roscosmos’ head Dmitry Rogozin in turn announced that it will go ahead with its own Mars mission, using the lander on an Angara rocket

“True, we will lose several years, but we will replicate our landing module, make an Angara rocket for it and carry out this research mission from the newly-built Vostochny spaceport on our own. Without inviting any ‘European friends’, who prefer to keep their tails between their legs the moment they hear their American master’s angry voice,” Rogozin said on his Telegram channel.

Whether Russia will actually do this is questionable. For the last two decades Roscosmos has promised all kinds of numerous planetary missions and new rockets and new manned capsules, none of which has ever seen the light of day. To make such a thing happen now seems even more doubtful.

ESA: ExoMars launch in ’22 “very unlikely” due to Russian invasion of the Ukraine

In a statement yesterday condemning Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine and responding to the Russians’ decision to suspend cooperation with Arianespace in French Guiana, the European Space Agency (ESA) also admitted, almost as an aside, that the ExoMars launch in ’22 to Mars is now “very unlikely.”

That mission is a partnership with Russia, where the Russians provide the rocket and the lander that will put Europe’s Franklin rover on the surface.

For the scientists running ExoMars, this delay only adds to their frustration, as the mission has already been delayed several times, most recently from a ’20 launch because the lander parachutes — being built by ESA — were not ready.