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Rosalind Franklin: Mars rover mission set for yet another delay

Europe and Russia look set to postpone the launch of their Mars surface mission to 2022.

By Jonathan Amos • bbcnews
March 12, 2020 4 minSource

Europe and Russia look set to postpone their joint Mars rover mission again.

The "Rosalind Franklin" vehicle is scheduled to launch to the Red Planet in July/August but engineers aren't able to get the vehicle ready in time.

Because an Earth-Mars journey is only attempted when the planets are favourably aligned, the robot's next opportunity won't occur until 2022.

The Russian and European space agencies have called a Moscow press conference to discuss the situation.

The webcast will feature Esa's Jan Wörner and Roscosmos's Dmitry Rogozin. Postponement seems inevitable.

The set-back - the latest in a long series for this project - has been signposted for some weeks.

All the hardware is built, but there remains an intimidating list of outstanding checks that must be completed before the mission will be declared flight-ready.

Matters have been further complicated in recent days by the international coronavirus crisis which could start to disrupt engineering effort.

Rosalind Franklin has been built to try to detect life, past or present, on the Red Planet.

Because of this, the rover and its instruments have been prepared to incredibly stringent levels of cleanliness.

This status must now be maintained over the coming two years of storage.

Where this caretaking operation will be done is unclear.

The project's industrial leader, Thales Alenia Space of Italy, is thought to favour keeping all the mission hardware at its Turin factory.

Sub-contractor, Airbus, on the other hand, would like the rover to return to the bio-controlled facility where it was assembled in Stevenage, UK .

Also uncertain is the financial fallout of a postponement.

The European Space Agency has worked out what it thinks is a fair price to store Rosalind Franklin but it has previously refused to publish the figure so as not to compromise negotiations with industry.

First envisaged as a small technology demonstration mission, the robot vehicle was approved by European nations back in 2005 , with a launch first pencilled in for 2011.

Then, as ambitions grew and the design was beefed up, the start date was put back. At first, it was shifted to 2013 , but further problems saw slippage to 2016 , and then again to 2018 .

For much of its history, the rover project, codenamed ExoMars, has had to fumble through with budgets that were insufficient to maintain promised timelines.

At one stage, back in 2009, Esa decided to join forces with America to try to make the mission happen, only to see Nasa walk away three years later when its priorities changed.

That could have killed the project there and then, but for an offer from the Russians to fill the partnership position vacated by the US.

Even with this fresh impetus, however, the project continued to stumble. The Esa-Roscosmos 2018 target gave way to 2020 . Now the launch date is being moved again.

[email protected] and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

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