The ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover.
ESA’s ExoMars rover will join an orbiter launched in 2016 on a mission to search for evidence of past life on Mars. Credit: ESA

HELSINKI — The ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover mission will not launch in 2020 due to a lack of time to test and qualify problematic parachutes and electronics vital to the spacecraft.

European Space Agency director-general Jan Woerner made the announcement in a press conference Thursday after a meeting with Dmitry Rogozin, head of mission partner Roscosmos.

Woerner stated that the mission’s Proton launch vehicle, the landing platform and the rover itself were assessed to be ready for launch.

However two parachutes required for Mars entry, descent and landing still require testing and qualification. Additionally some spacecraft electronics need to be returned to suppliers.

“Launching this year would mean sacrificing essential remaining tests,” Woerner said. “This is a very tough decision, but I am sure the right one”.

The decision comes after the ESA-Roscosmos project team evaluated all the activities needed for an authorize launch.

Woerner stated that although the rover is close to launch readiness, the delay necessarily pushed the launch back more than two years due to celestial mechanics.

Optimal windows for launching to Mars open for a few weeks every 26 months, due to the planets’ respective orbits. 

The Rosalind Franklin rover is a second ExoMars mission to search for signs of life at depths up to two meters below the martian surface. It consists of a Russian-led surface platform and the European-led rover, to be launched on a Russian Proton rocket from Baikonur.

“We want to make ourselves 100% sure of a successful mission. We cannot allow ourselves any margin of error. More verification activities will ensure a safe trip and the best scientific results on Mars,” Woerner said in an ESA press release alongside the press conference.

Responding to a journalist question, Woerner acknowledged that the coronavirus outbreak would have had an impact on the mission because international teams cannot travel as easily as before. Woerner said he did not know if the pandemic would have prevented a launch in July.

Woerner stated that ESA remains on schedule and on budget for the Mars Sample Return mission with NASA. There is no indication ExoMars will impact the sample return project, Woerner tweeted.

Parachute problems prompt second delay

The ExoMars rover mission was initially scheduled to launch in 2018, but was delayed to 2020 due to delays in European and Russian industrial activities.

When the Rosalind Franklin rover  arrives at Mars it will join the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, which has been in orbit around the Red Planet since October 2016. TGO will act as a relay station for the mission while continuing its own science mission.

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—failed in May and August 2019.

Damage to the chutes at the point of extraction from their bags was identified as the cause of the failures, inspectors from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory found. New tests were scheduled for December and February, but have been pushed back to late March.

The new high altitude drop tests will be carried out in Oregon in the United States. The Esrange Space Center, northern Sweden, hosted the earlier tests.

The unprecedented size and complexity of the parachute system is related to the lander provided by Roscosmos. A more powerful retropropulsive system on the lander would have allowed the mission to require only one main chute, according to Spoto. NASA pulled out of the mission in 2012 due to budget cuts, having committed to the mission with ESA in 2009.

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for GBTIMES and SpaceNews. He is based in Helsinki, Finland.