Will ESA finally land on Mars?

Will ESA finally land on Mars?

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If you haven’t yet seen it, on Friday I published the fourth issue of the paid-only newsletter. In this issue, I took a look at an interesting programme called the Russia-Europe Cooperation on Rocket engine Demonstration which saw European industry studying the Russian RD0120 to potentially fast-track development of its own staged combustion engine. If you’re interested, there is a 7-day trial that you can use to read the issue.

According to NASA's Mars Exploration Historical Log, there have been a total of 48 Mars missions launched since 1960. Japan was the first country other than the US and Russia to launch a Mars mission which it did so in 1998. However, the mission ultimately failed. ESA was the first country outside the two space powerhouses to successfully enter orbit around Mars with its Mars Express Orbiter which was launched in 2003. The mission also carried a lander, the Beagle 2, which ultimately failed after the agency was unable to communicate with the lander after it touched down on the Martian surface. The only other mission to Mars ESA has been involved in is that of the first ExoMars mission which was launched in partnership with Russia. This mission also carried a lander, the Schiaparelli EDL Demo, that also ultimately failed.

Although ESA’s attempts to land on the surface of the Red Planet have been unsuccessful, these results are not all that unusual for Mars missions. In total, 56% of the 48 Mars missions launched have either outright failed or had some element of the mission fail. This is a testament to how difficult it is to launch a precision piece of engineering aboard a controlled explosion, have it travel over 350 million kilometres away from Earth, and then land it on another planet while all communications are delayed anywhere between 5 and 20 minutes. This communications delay is such a significant hindrance that engineers refer to the entry, descent, and landing phase of a mission to the Martian surface as the 7 minutes of terror.

ESA and several European countries are involved in a handful of upcoming Mars missions. There is, however, only one that will see the agency assume the primary role of landing on the surface of the Red Planet.

ExoMars was first approved for development by ESA member states in December 2005. Work on a mission to the surface of Mars, however, began in 1987 with the agency's Science directorate conducting the Mars Rover Mission study. In 2001, ESA set up the Aurora programme with the primary objective of creating and then implementing a long-term plan for the robotic and human exploration of the solar system, with Mars, the Moon, and the asteroids as the most likely targets. The first flagship mission of the programme was ExoMars. The mission would primarily be focused on searching for signs of life on Mars and identifying potential hazards that crews would encounter on the surface of the Red Planet.

NASA had initially been a part of the ExoMars mission. However, in 2012 it was announced that the mission would not receive additional funding from the US, which would see NASA pull out. The exit of NASA from ExoMars was largely blamed on the cost overruns of the James Webb Space Telescope. Despite the blow, in 2012 Russia signed up to assist with the development, launch, and operation of ExoMars.

The first ExoMars mission was launched in 2016 in partnership with Russia. The mission included the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli lander. Contact with the Schiaparelli lander was lost about one minute from touchdown. Images of the landing site taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show what appears to be a crash site. The orbiter is, however, still in operation around Mars today.

The ExoMars mission second was supposed to have been launched in 2022 and would have featured the Russian-built Kazachok lander and the European-built Rosalind Franklin rover. That was, however, until Russia invaded Ukraine and ESA made the decision to indefinitely suspend the mission. This meant that the launch of the second ExoMars mission was abandoned mere months away from its launch.

Through 2022 the fate of the second ExoMars mission was uncertain with the rover being placed in storage indefinitely. However, at the November 2022 ESA ministerial meeting, we got the best possible news with member states committing to fund a new mission, which would be called the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin Mission.

Prior to the approval from member states to rework the mission, the BBC reported that ESA was expected to request €360 million in funding from member states to begin to develop a European-built replacement for the Kazachok lander. It would also be only the first tranche of funding required to bring the newly liberated mission to fruition. ESA is, however, expected to receive support from NASA. Now that James Webb has been launched, the agency’s dance card seems to have freed up somewhat.

In March, NASA requested approximately $30 million for 2024 to assist with the development of the new ExoMars mission. According to ESA, the US agency's investment in the mission past 2024 leading up to the new launch date is still being discussed. Possible support in supplying actual components of the new lander is also being discussed.

According to Pietro Baglioni, the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover team leader, a new launch date of October 2028 is being targeted. This is not a launch date that can be pushed much either.

“It cannot be earlier because we need time to redesign and build and requalify the lander,” said Baglioni. “We [also] don’t want to go beyond this date because then the environmental conditions on Mars are not favourable for the mission we want to do with the rover.”

As a result, ESA has just five years to build out a lander and all its associated systems in order to be ready for a launch in 2028.

If the mission makes it to the launchpad by 2028, it will embark on a two-year transfer to Mars. This will enable the lander to touch down and perform around six months of operations before the start of the Martian northern hemisphere fall and winter when the atmosphere is generally dustier and when the infamous Mars global dust storms may occur.

In the event that the lander successfully touches down on the surface of the Red Planet, the Rosalind Franklin rover will be deployed within tens sols (Martian days). The first deep drilling operation is expected to begin approximately one month after landing. If previous estimates hold, the rover is expected to remain operational on the surface for at least seven-months.

Europe will, fortunately, not be starting from scratch with the lander. Many significant components of the Russian lander had been developed in Europe. As such, the parachutes, computer, and landing radar system can all be reused in the new lander. European industry will now have to tackle the development of the Entry Descent and Landing Module, its aeroshell, the landing platform, and the rover egress system. The throttleable propulsion system used for the final lander deceleration prior to landing on Mars, the radioisotope heater units used to heat up the rover once on Mars, and the launcher to bring the mission to Mars, all need to be reconsidered as well.

According to ESA, the lander itself will take three to four years to build and qualify leaving very little time for slips or delays. In order to achieve this ambitious timeline, the design of the lander will be simplified. It will be designed to perform no other task than to enable the successful deployment of the Rosalind Franklin rover. It will not be equipped with dedicated solar arrays nor with its own science complement. The lander will cease to operate a few sols after landing, once the rover’s solar arrays have been deployed and communication with Earth secured.

In addition to building the lander, ExoMars teams will also have to implement key changes to the rover to cope with a new set of mission requirements.

“The rover was accepted and qualified for the 2022 scenario,” said Andrea Merlo, head of robotics at Thales Alenia Space, the mission’s prime contractor. “We are now facing a new mission scenario and the idea is to upgrade the rover in order to be capable of surviving what is called the global dust storm season.”

Upgrades to the rover will include tiltable solar arrays to allow the rover to clear dust and nuclear power to keep the rover warm.

Despite the apparent haphazard nature of bringing this new mission together, ExoMars will still be historic for ESA and Europe as it will be the first time the agency has successfully touched down on the surface of Mars. It will, however, also be significant to the world.

The Rosalind Franklin rover is equipped with a drill that is capable of penetrating the Martian surface as deep as two metres to collect samples, which would be a first. This is significant as at that depth samples can be collected from below the layer of soil sterilized by the effects of surface radiation. This will give the rover access to what is hoped will be well-preserved organic material from four billion years ago, when conditions on the surface of Mars are believed to have been more like those on early Earth. To date, no sample has been collected from deeper than 7 centimetres. NASA's InSight mission was expected to send a probe down as far as 5 metres, but even if it had achieved that milestone, the probe was not designed to retrieve samples.

Being unable to launch the second ExoMars mission in 2022 after getting so close to the launch date was heartbreaking. However, I think it is the best thing that could have possibly happened. Europe and ESA are now the primary drivers of what will hopefully become a historic mission. I am excited to see Europeans set foot on the Moon as part of NASA’s Artemis missions. I am, however, more excited to see the first views of the Red Planet from the eyes of the Rosalind Franklin rover.

I hope that ESA can pull together the Mars lander to carry the Rosalind Franklin rover and successfully land it on Mars. You did not mention the Mars Sample Return (MSR) collaboration between ESA and NASA. There are worries in the USA Congress and other groups that the huge cost of MSR for NASA is going to be like JWST and absorb funds that would cover other planetary science. I wonder how the ESA part of MSR development will affect the Mars rover mission.

Успеха европейскому марсоходу!

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