ESA says it’s “very unlikely” ExoMars will launch this year

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WASHINGTON — The European Space Agency said Feb. 28 that it is “very unlikely” that its ExoMars mission will launch this September because of sanctions on Russia from its invasion of Ukraine.

In a brief statement, ESA all but ruled out a launch that had been planned for late September of the ExoMars mission on Proton launch vehicle from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, raising questions about when, or if, the mission will fly.

“Regarding the ExoMars program continuation, the sanctions and the wider context make a launch in 2022 very unlikely,” the agency said. “ESA’s Director General will analyze all the options and prepare a formal decision on the way forward by ESA Member States.”

“We deplore the tragic events taking place in Ukraine, a crisis which escalated dramatically into war in recent days,” Josef Aschbacher, ESA’s director general, tweeted. “Many difficult decisions are now being taken at ESA in consideration of the sanctions implemented by the governments of our Member States.”

As recently as Feb. 25, after European and other nations levied sanctions on Russia in reaction to the invasion of Ukraine, Aschbacher held out hope for keeping ExoMars on track for launch. “ESA continues to work on all of its programs, including on ISS & ExoMars launch campaign,” Aschbacher said, adding that “for now, support for our missions & colleagues continues until further notice.”

ExoMars, carrying a rover named Rosalind Franklin, was previously scheduled to launch in mid-2020. However, ESA delayed the launch that spring to the next window, in September 2022, citing the impacts of the pandemic as well as technical issues, such as parachutes used as part of the landing system, unlikely to be resolved in time.

Besides the launch itself, Russia is providing the landing platform, called Kazachok, that will deliver the rover to the Martian surface. If ESA elects not to cooperate further with Russia on ExoMars, it’s unclear whether or how ESA might replace Kazachok, as well as find an alternative launch. The next launch window will be in late 2024.

ESA’s announcement came two days after Roscosmos announced it was suspending cooperation with Europe on Soyuz launches from the European spaceport in French Guiana and withdrawing Russian personnel there. That decision will, at a minimum, delay several upcoming launches of European institutional payloads from there.

ESA mentioned that decision in its statement. “We will consequently assess for each European institutional payload under our responsibility the appropriate launch service based notably on launch systems currently in operation and the upcoming Vega-C and Ariane 6 launchers,” the agency said.

ESA said in general it is “fully implementing” sanctions imposed by its 22 member states on Russia. “We are assessing the consequences on each of our ongoing programs conducted in cooperation with the Russian state space agency Roscosmos and align our decisions to the decisions of our Member States in close coordination with industrial and international partners.”

That included, it noted, cooperation with NASA on the International Space Station. During a Feb. 28 press conference about the upcoming Ax-1 commercial mission to the ISS, Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for space operations, said ISS operations had not been affected by the invasion and subsequent sanctions.

“We are not getting any indications, at a working level, that our counterparts are not committed to ongoing operation of the International Space Station,” she said of cooperation with Russia on ISS operations. “We’re operating just like we were operating three weeks ago.”