Rosalind Franklin Rover launch suspended over war in Ukraine

The upcoming ESA mission to put a rover on Mars has been delayed as part of sanctions against the Russian space agency.

A replica ExoMars rover during a test drive around the Mars Terrain Simulator at ALTEC, Turin, Italy. Credit: ESA/Thales Alenia Space
Published: April 12, 2022 at 9:52 am
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The Rosalind Franklin rover – the latest European Space Agency (ESA) Mars mission that was scheduled for launch in September 2022 – has been suspended as part of ESA’s move to cut ties with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency.

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The move comes in response to the war in Ukraine.

The ExoMars rover was to use its 2m drill to probe deeper beneath the Red Planet’s surface than any previous mission, hoping to find signs of past life.

The Rosalind Franklin rover during environmental tests at Airbus, Toulouse, France, in 2019. Credit: Airbus
The Rosalind Franklin rover during environmental tests at Airbus, Toulouse, France, in 2019. Credit: Airbus

Roscosmos is supplying several key components of the mission, most notably both the launch rocket and the Kazachok landing platform that would carry the rover to the Martian surface.

But in a meeting on 28 February, the 22 member states of ESA asked the agency to enforce sanctions against Russia.

Then, on 17 March, ESA announced it would be suspending Rosalind Franklin’s launch and seeking to replace all Roscosmos components required for the mission.

"The decision was made that this launch cannot happen, given the current circumstances and especially the sanctions that are imposed by our member states," says ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher.

"This makes it practically impossible, but also politically impossible to have a launch of [the rover] in September."

An artist's impression of the ExoMars rover on the surface of the Red Planet. Copyright: ESA/ATG medialab
An artist's impression of the ExoMars rover on the surface of the Red Planet. Copyright: ESA/ATG medialab

ESA is looking into ways it can continue with the ExoMars mission without Roscosmos, such as working with NASA.

But the Mars mission would need to be extensively reworked and wouldn’t be ready until 2026 at the earliest.

The mission is just one of many that have been affected. ESA has ceased all Soyuz launches from its facility in French Guiana, while Russia has broken several contracts to supply parts in response.

One place that both ESA and NASA continue to cooperate with Roscosmos, for the time being, is aboard the International Space Station.

The ISS is specifically designed to require the involvement of all parties to function, and Roscosmos is responsible for maintaining its orbit.

International space station in earth orbit
Credit: NASA

Roscosmos is only contracted to support the Space Station until 2024, however.

The agency was in talks to renew its commitment until 2031, when the station was due to be decommissioned, but the head of Roscosmos Dmitry Rogozin has made comments about withdrawing support, should the sanctions continue.

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"We’ll closely monitor the actions of our American partners and if they continue to be hostile, we’ll return to the question of the existence of the International Space Station," Rogozin said.

Authors

Elizabeth Pearson
Ezzy PearsonScience journalist

Ezzy Pearson is the Features Editor of BBC Sky at Night Magazine. Her first book about the history of robotic planetary landers is out now from The History Press.

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