Just a few months ago, we were confidently looking forward to launching our rover, Rosalind Franklin, to Mars in September as part of the ExoMars mission, a collaboration between Europe and Russia. Landing was planned for June 2023. Everything was ready: the rover, the operations team, and the eager scientists.
Final preparations began on February 21st, with part of our team heading to Turin, Italy for final alignment and calibration tests. Everything was going well, although Storm Eunice in the UK slowed down some of the team a bit. Three days later, they had finished the job, leaving behind some wonderful data that would help us decide where Rosalind would drill on Mars. The industry team began packing up the rover, which was ready to be shipped to the launch site.
Then a much more powerful and tragic storm than Eunice descended on the Ukraine: the invasion of Russia. The situation developed over the following days and weeks, leading to a series of emergency meetings. On March 17, the council and the member states of the European Space Agency (ESA) decided to suspend our mission. We won’t know for sure what happens next until a study by Esa and industry partners reports in July, but there is reason for optimism.
The Rosalind Franklin rover is unique among all the rovers planned for Mars. It can drill deeper than anything before it, up to 2 meters below the hard surface. This is important as the subsurface is protected from harmful radiation and therefore could contain signs of past or present life.
Rosalind’s instruments include our PanCam, which is a camera that will do geology and atmospheric science on Mars, supplemented by the other cameras and an underground sounding radar. Rosalind will also collect pristine subsurface samples that will be deposited in the “analytical drawer,” where three instruments will perform mineralogy and search for signs of life.
About 3.8 billion years ago, at the same time life was emerging on Earth, Mars was also habitable. There is evidence of water on the surface of the orbiters and landers at that time: there would be clouds, rain and a thick atmosphere. There was also a global protective magnetic field and volcanoes. This means that Mars had essentially all the ingredients necessary for life: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur. If life arose there as it did on Earth, we were well on our way to finding it.
However, the climate has changed significantly since Mars lost its magnetic field 3.8 billion years ago. The planet is now dry, cold, has a thin atmosphere and a surface hostile to life. But below the surface, some living species may have survived, or remnants of them could be preserved.
Other missions to Mars are also searching for life. NASA’s amazing Perseverance rover touched down in February 2021. Its scientists are guided in part by images from a NASA helicopter on the planet, called Ingenuity, and it recently reached an ancient river delta.
Perseverance is collecting samples from Jezero Crater, ready to be brought back to powerful laboratories on Earth by the Mars Sample Return missions. The results are expected to complement those of Rosalind Franklin, who will examine deeper samples from a different and slightly older site, Oxia Planum, where there is also abundant evidence of a watery past.
Options for Rosalind
Russia was meant to help launch Rosalind Franklin on one of their rockets. While a European-built spacecraft would take it to Mars, a Russian-built platform would again be needed to land it. Russia was also meant to provide radioactive heaters to keep the rover’s batteries warm on cold Martian nights.
Now, Esa is looking for options. Since continuing with Russia in 2024 is highly unlikely, the main possibilities are that Esa will go it alone or team up with a partner like NASA. Esa’s new Ariane-6 rocket, which is nearly ready, could help launch the rover, as could a SpaceX rocket. For the lander and heaters, Esa would need to develop them alone or in collaboration with NASA, adapting existing technology.
Therefore, it could take time. Also, because of the way the planets orbit the Sun, there are Mars launch opportunities only every two years: in 2024, 2026, and so on. My expectation is that 2028 is more likely for our mission, but it will take a lot of work. The positive is that ESA and member states are still eager to move forward, and we are looking forward to the launch whenever it is.
Life finally changed for Rosalind Franklin’s team on February 24. I have been working on the mission since 2003, when we first proposed a camera system for what became ExoMars. We had already provided the “stereo camera system” for Esa’s ill-fated Beagle 2, which almost worked when it landed on Christmas Day 2003. But images from the orbiter later showed that the last solar array was not fully deployed, so so communications with Earth were impossible. The wait for Martian surface data for our team continues.
There is no escaping the great disappointment we felt when the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover that we had worked on for almost 20 years was discontinued. But in the end it was a necessary and understandable step, and we now look forward to a future release.
This is still cutting-edge science, and will be for the rest of this decade. Due to exceptionally deep drilling, Rosalind Franklin may still be the first mission to find signs of life in space.