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.

ESA asks member nations to build lander for Franklin Mars rover

In its most recent request for funding from the member nations of the European Space Agency (ESA), the agency has asked the member nations to finance the design and construction of a new lander for its long delayed Rosalind Franklin Mars rover, replacing the Russian lander that had became unavailable due to sanctions resulting from Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine.

According to the BBC (opens in new tab), ESA will request 360 million euros to kickstart work on the new landing system, with additional funds likely needed in subsequent years. ESA has already spent some 1.3 billion euro on the ExoMars program, which also includes an orbiter that has been studying Mars’ atmosphere and surface since 2017. ESA will put the plan in front of delegates of its 22 member states at a ministerial conference in November.

“We will have to wait if the [member states] decide to go forward with the project,” Parker said. “This concept is now proposed as part of the director general’s package within [ESA’s] exploration program for decision at the ministerial [conference].”

If ESA’s member nations agree to this plan, expect the launch of Franklyn to be delayed further. Based on the normal pace in which ESA functions, that lander will take a minimum of five years to design and build (likely much longer). Though ESA is now targeting ’28 for the launch of Franklin, which was supposed to launch this past summer after a two year delay, this plan likely means it will not get off the ground this decade.

Meanwhile, there are now at least a half dozen private companies building lunar landers that could more quickly (and for less money) get a Franklin Mars lander built for ESA. None are in Europe however, which means ESA would rather have this mission delayed years so that it can funnel money to its own contractors..

Russia proposes restart of ExoMars partnership with ESA

Russia’s aerospace corporation Roscosmos has proposed to the European Space Agency (ESA) that its partnership to launch and land ESA’s Franklin rover on Mars be renewed, despite the Ukraine War and Roscosmos’ confiscation of 36 OneWeb satellites.

[According to Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin] the equipment and Kazachok landing platform for the mission have the potential for launch in 2024. “ESA colleagues promised to make requests to their patrons, who are ESA member states. If they cooperate and give their consent, the mission may be implemented,” Rogozin said.

He estimates the likelihood of this scenario to be at about 708%. [sic] Roscosmos plans to get the response in late June. [emphasis mine]

It would not be surprising if ESA made this deal, despite its stupidity. Roscosmos’ actions recently, especially related to OneWeb, prove the people running it are very untrustworthy business partners. Yet Europe’s historic willingness to deal with the devil for short term gain — eventually and repeatedly leading to overall disaster — is legendary.

ESA: ExoMars will likely be delayed till ’28 at the soonest

An official of the European Space Agency (ESA) at a May 3rd science meeting announced that the launch of its ExoMars rover will likely be delayed until 2028 at the earliest because of the partnership breakup with Russia due to its invasion of the Ukraine.

Russia had been providing both the launch rocket as well as the lander on Mars.

Speaking at a May 3 meeting of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG), Jorge Vago, ExoMars project scientist at ESA, said he doubted a new lander could be ready by 2026. “It is theoretically possible, but in practice we think it would be very difficult to reconfigure ourselves and produce our own lander for 2026,” he said. “Realistically, we would be looking at a launch in 2028.”

Launching in 2028 could pose technical challenges for ExoMars. One trajectory would get the rover to Mars relatively quickly, but have it arrive just a month before dust storm seasons starts at the preferred landing site. An alternative trajectory would require traveling for more than two years to each Mars, but get the rover there six months before dust storms start.

“We have been trying very hard to convince the engineering team that the dust storm season is not death,” Vago said. “We should concentrate on making the rover more robust and able to weather a dust storm.”

There are other issues. The rover will need new radioisotope heating units, or RHUs, to provide power, since Russia will no longer providing them. If the U.S. provides, the launch for security reasons will have to take place in the U.S., which means the launch provider will have to be American.

The delay to ’28 also could cause the ExoMars rover mission to be completely changed, repurposed to become part of the sample return mission that the ESA and NASA are partnering to bring back the cached samples that Perseverance is gathering. If so, this repurposing might delay its launch to Mars even further.

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.

More parachute problems for Europe’s Franklin Mars rover

During a parachute drop test in late June, following a redesign of the parachute with U.S. help, engineers for the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin Mars rover found the chute still experienced problems that tore it during deployment.

They actually performed two drop tests, a day apart, using two different parachutes, with the first test apparently going off without a hitch. However, according to the press release:

“The performance of the second main parachute was not perfect but much improved thanks to the adjustments made to the bag and canopy. After a smooth extraction from the bag, we experienced an unexpected detachment of the pilot chute during final inflation. This likely means that the main parachute canopy suffered extra pressure in certain parts. This created a tear that was contained by a Kevlar reinforcement ring. Despite that, it fulfilled its expected deceleration and the descent module was recovered in good state.”

I have embedded below the fold the only video released by the European Space Agency. It is not clear whether this is from the first or second test. Near the end it appears that the pilot chute above the main chute might be separated, but the video ends before that can be confirmed.

Though ESA has apparently improved the chute’s performance significantly since its earlier failures that contributed to the delay of ExoMars from last year to 2022, they still haven’t gotten the chute completely right. Fortunately they still have time to get it fixed before that ’22 launch.
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ESA completes new parachute test for its 2022 Mars rover

On November 9, 2020 the European Space Agency finally conducted the high altitude parachute test of the landing system for its 2022 Mars rover Rosalind Franklin that had been planned for March but had been delayed due to the Wuhan flu panic.

The timeline of the latest test, including extraction and deceleration, went exactly to plan. However, four tears in the canopy of the first main parachute and one in the second main parachute were found after recovery. The damage seemed to happen at the onset of the inflation, with the descent otherwise occurring nominally.

The team are now analysing the test data to determine further improvements for the next tests. Planning is underway for future tests in the first half of next year, to ‘qualify’ the complete parachute system ready for launch in September 2022.

Overall they consider the test a success, though the damage issues must be solved before the ’22 launch. Based on this test it also appears that the ESA made a very wise choice delaying the mission from launch this year, as its parachute system was clearly not ready.

ExoMars2020 rover delayed until 2022

The European Space Agency (ESA) today announced that they are delaying the launch of their ExoMars2020 rover mission until the next launch window in 2022

The press release says this will give them the time “necessary to make all components of the spacecraft fit for the Mars adventure.” Considering that the spacecraft’s parachutes have yet to have a successful high altitude test, that the entire spacecraft is not yet assembled, and that when they did the first thermal test of the rover the glue for the solar panel hinges failed, this seems that they need to do a lot of testing.

Overall the decision is smart. Better to give them the time to get this right then launch on time and have a failure.

At the same time, there appears to be something fundamentally wrong within the management of this project at ESA. This project was first proposed in 2001, and has gone through repeated restructurings and redesigns. Moreover, they began planning the rover for this 2020 launch in 2011, and after ten years were not ready for launch.

ExoMars2020 parachute tests delayed until late March

The European Space Agency (ESA) has decided to delay until late March the next high altitude tests of the revamped ExoMars2020 parachutes, despite the success of recent ground tests.

The tests of the 15-meter-diameter supersonic and 35-meter-wide subsonic parachutes—an essential part of the entry, descent and landing phase of the mission—had been scheduled for December and February. The delay comes despite six ground tests demonstrating successful parachute extraction – the point at which damage was caused in earlier, failed high altitude tests.

Both tests need to be successful for the go-ahead for launch of 300-kilogram Rosalind Franklin rover during the July 25 to Aug. 13 Mars launch window. Any failure would mean a wait of 26 months for the next launch window, opening late 2022.

There will be a meeting next week of the project’s top management, from both Russia and Europe, and I strongly suspect that they are going to decide to delay launch to the 2022 launch window. Not only have the parachutes not been tested successfully at high altitude, they recently discovered an issue with the glue holding the solar panel hinges on the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover.

Europe considering delaying ExoMars2020 two years

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.

More parachute problems for ExoMars 2020?

Space is hard: Eric Berger at Ars Technica reported yesterday that the parachute issues for Europe’s ExoMars 2020 mission are far more serious that publicly announced.

The project has had two parachute failures during test flights in May and then August. However,

The problems with the parachutes may be worse than has publicly been reported, however. Ars has learned of at least one other parachute failure during testing of the ExoMars lander. Moreover, the agency has yet to conduct even a single successful test of the parachute canopy that is supposed to deploy at supersonic speeds, higher in the Martian atmosphere.

Repeated efforts to get comments from the project about this issue have gone unanswered.

Their launch window opens in July 2020, only about ten months from now. This is very little time to redesign and test a parachute design. Furthermore, they will only begin the assembly of the spacecraft at the end of this year, which is very very late in the game.

When the August test failure was confirmed, I predicted that there is a 50-50 chance they will launch in 2020. The lack of response from the project above makes me now think that their chances have further dropped, to less than 25%.

Assembly complete on Europe’s Franklin Mars rover

Engineers have completed the assembly of Europe’s Rosalind Franklin rover that is scheduled for launch to Mars in July 2020

Rosalind Franklin, which is the result of cutting edge work from UK, European and Canadian scientists and engineers will now be shipped from the Airbus factory in Stevenage, Hertfordshire to Toulouse in France for testing to ensure it survives its launch from Earth next summer and the freezing conditions of Mars when it lands on the planet in March 2021.

Whether they can meet this schedule remains unknown because of the problems that occurred during testing of the spacecraft’s landing parachutes.

Europe inaugurates ExoMars control center

The Europe Space Agency yesterday inaugurated the control center where it will control and download data from the ExoMars rover, Rosalind Franklin, scheduled to launch to Mars in the summer of 2020.

The control center also includes a dirt filled enclosure where they can simulate Martian conditions with a rover model.

The article outlined the project’s upcoming schedule:

Over the summer the rover will move to Toulouse, France, where it will be tested in Mars-like conditions. At the end of the year Rosalind Franklin will travel to Cannes to meet the landing and carrier modules for final assembly.

As I noted yesterday in my most recent rover update, this assembly, only six months before launch, gives them very little margin. If there are any problems during assembly, they will likely miss the 2020 launch window.

I also wonder if this will allow them any time to do acoustical and environmental testing, as was just completed on NASA’s 2020 rover, to make sure ExoMars can survive launch, landing, and the journey to Mars. If they forego those tests, they might discover after launch that they were launching a paperweight, not an expensive planetary probe.

A gathering of dust devils

Dust devil tracks
Click for full resolution image.

A bunch of cool images! The European Space Agency (ESA) today released more than a dozen Martian images taken by the camera on its Trace Gas Orbiter spacecraft.

In addition to a snapshot of InSight and its landing area, “The images selected include detailed views of layered deposits in the polar regions, the dynamic nature of Mars dunes, and the surface effects of converging dust devils.” The release also included images showing details of two of Mars’ giant volcanoes, Olympus Mons and Ascraeus Mons.

The image I have highlighted to the right, reduced to post here, shows a spot on Mars where for some unknown reason dust devils love to congregate.

This mysterious pattern sits on the crest of a ridge, and is thought to be the result of dust devil activity – essentially the convergence of hundreds or maybe even thousands of smaller martian tornadoes.

Below is a side-by-side comparison of this image (on the right) with a Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) image taken in 2009 (on the left).
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UK names rover for 2020 ExMars mission

The United Kingdom has named its rover for 2020 ExMars mission in honor of Rosalind Franklin, one of the scientists who contributed to the discovery of the helix structure of DNA.

Franklin is best known for her work on the X-ray diffraction images of DNA. Her data was a part of the data used to formulate Crick and Watson’s 1953 hypothesis regarding the structure of DNA. Unpublished drafts of her papers show that she had determined the overall B-form of the DNA helix. Her work supported the hypothesis of Watson and Crick and was published third in the series of three DNA Nature articles. After finishing her portion of the DNA work, Franklin led pioneering work on the tobacco mosaic and polio viruses. Franklin died from ovarian cancer at the age of 37, four years before Crick, Watson and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962 for their work on DNA.

Though this isn’t entire clear from the press release, it appears that they will refer to the rover as either “Rosalind Franklin” or “Rosalind.”