- ESA and Roscosmos announced on Thursday that the launch of their ExoMars mission will be delayed until 2022.
- More testing of the spacecraft's final hardware and software needs to be completed before launch.
- The delay is also due, in part, to increased travel restrictions in response to the spread of COVID-19.
ExoMars missed the mark.
ESA and Roscosmos' joint mission has missed its 2020 launch window and will be delayed until 2022, the agency announced March 12. The agency's claimed in a joint statement that several key components of the spacecraft still need to be testing. The delay is also, in part, due to increased travel restrictions in response to the spread of COVID-19.
"We have made a difficult but well-weighed decision to postpone the launch to 2022. It is driven primarily by the need to maximise the robustness of all ExoMars systems as well as force majeure circumstances related to exacerbation of the epidemiological situation in Europe which left our experts practically no possibility to proceed with travels to partner industries," Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin said in a statement.
The spacecraft is mostly assembled. All 13 instruments have been installed on the Kazachok lander, and the Rosalind Franklin rover's nine scientific instruments are in the final stages of thermal and vacuum testing. The descent module has undergone numerous tests in the past month, including its propulsion system qualification and a series of environmental tests, according to the agency.
There have been significant issues with the lander's nearly 50- and 100- foot parachutes, which failed two tests in May and August of 2019, Engadget reported. Two high-altitude drop tests above the Oregon desert—are scheduled for later this month.
"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,” ESA Director General Jan Wörner said in the statement.
The orbits of Earth and Mars synch up approximately once every 26 months, so the spacecraft will aim to launch during a 10-day window between August and October 2022. When it eventually lands in 2023, the rover, which has its own built-in, miniaturized clean room, will drill down beneath the Martian surface in search of signs of life—past and present—on the Red Planet.
How are other Mars missions fairing in the wake of the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19)? "We are proactively monitoring the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation, and have plans in place to address issues as they arise," Steve Cole, who is on the Senior Communications Team at NASA Headquarters, told Popular Mechanics in an email. "Currently, the coronavirus has not impacted the Mars Perseverance rover launch preps. Work is continuing on schedule."
It's not yet clear how the spread of COVID-19 has impacted China's Mars mission.
On Monday, the agency released a statement stating that an employee at NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Vally had tested positive for COVID-19. "Out of an abundance of caution...Ames Research Center is temporarily on mandatory telework status with restricted access to the center until further notice." NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement.
Three airborne, NASA Ames-based missions that were scheduled to fly this spring—the DeltaX and Dynamics and Chemistry of the Summer Stratosphere campaigns and the Sub-Mesoscale Ocean Dynamics Experiment—have been rescheduled for later in the summer.
Bridenstine noted that "the scientific returns of these projects are not expected to be impacted by this change of plans."
Update 3/16: We have updated this article to include comments from NASA's Headquarters regarding the status of the Perseverance mission.
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