An essential tool in the search for aliens is delayed

Just a little bit A few months ago, we confidently expected to launch our rover, Rosalind Franklin, to Mars in September as part of the ExoMars mission, a collaboration between Europe and Russia. Landing was scheduled for June 2023. Everything was ready: the rover, the operations team and the enthusiastic scientists.

Final preparations began on February 21, with part of our team traveling to Turin, Italy to perform final alignment and calibration tests. Everything was going well, although some team members were slightly delayed by Storm Eunice in the UK. Three days later, however, they had finished the job – leaving some wonderful data, which would help us decide where Rosalind would drill on Mars. The industry team began packaging the rover, which was ready to be shipped to the launch site.

Then, a storm far more powerful and tragic than Eunice hit the Ukraine: the Russian invasion.

The situation evolved in the days and weeks that followed, leading to a series of emergency meetings. On March 17, the Council and 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 are reasons for optimism.

The search for subterranean life on Mars

The Rosalind Franklin rover is unique among all the rovers planned for Mars. It can drill deeper than any before – up to 2 meters below hard surface. This is important because the subsoil is shielded from harmful radiation and therefore may 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 – complemented by the other cameras and a subsurface survey radar. Rosalind will also collect pristine samples below the surface, which will be deposited in the “analytical drawer,” where three instruments will do mineralogy and look for signs of life.

ExoMars rover on top of the landing pad.Thales Alenia Space/ESA

3.8 billion years ago, when life was emerging on Earth, Mars was also habitable. There is evidence of orbiters and water landers on the surface then – there would have been clouds, rain and a thick atmosphere. There was also a global protective magnetic field and volcanoes. This means that Mars basically had all the right ingredients for life – carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. If life appeared 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 their remains could be preserved.

Other missions to Mars are also looking for life. NASA’s incredible Perseverance rover landed 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 collects samples from Jezero Crater, ready to be taken back to powerful laboratories on Earth by the sample return missions to Mars. The results will hopefully complement those of Rosalind Franklin – who will examine deeper samples from a different, slightly older site, Oxia Planum, where there is also ample evidence of an aquatic past.

The lonely road to Mars

Russia was supposed to help launch Rosalind Franklin on one of its rockets. While a European-built spacecraft would then take it to Mars, a Russian-built platform would again be needed to land it. Russia was also supposed to provide radioactive heaters to keep the rover’s batteries warm during cold Martian nights.

Now the ESA is considering the options. Since pursuit with Russia in 2024 is highly unlikely, the main possibilities are either ESA going it alone or teaming up with a partner such as NASA. ESA’s new Ariane-6 rocket, which is almost ready, could help launch the rover, as could a SpaceX rocket. For the lander and heaters, ESA should develop them alone or in collaboration with NASA by adapting existing technology.

So it could take some time. Also, due to the way the planets orbit the Sun, there are only Mars launch opportunities every two years: in 2024, 2026, etc. I expect 2028 to be the most likely for our mission, but it will take hard work. The positive thing is that ESA and Member States are still eager to move forward, and we look forward to the launch when it does.

Finally, life changed for Rosalind Franklin’s team on February 24. I’ve 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 nearly worked when it landed on Christmas Day 2003. But orbiter footage showed later than the last solar panel hadn’t fully deployed, so communications with Earth were impossible. The wait for Martian surface data for our team continues.

There is no escaping the huge disappointment we felt when the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover we had been working on for nearly 20 years was suspended. But it was ultimately a necessary and understandable step, and we now look forward to a future launch.

It’s still cutting edge science, and it will be for the rest of this decade. Due to the particularly deep drilling, Rosalind Franklin could yet be the first mission to find signs of life in space.

This article was originally published on The conversation by Andre Coates at UCL. Read the original article here.

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