ExoMars, Europe’s first Martian rover, is facing a two-year delay in its mission to blast off towards the Red Planet, as the project is progressing slower than initially expected.
The ExoMars rover, built by Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage, was originally scheduled for launch in 2018 together with a Russian-made landing platform. However, the European Space Agency (Esa), overseeing the project from the European side, and Russia’s space agency Roscosmos announced on Monday the launch date has now been moved to July 2020, due to delays on both sides of the project (European and Russian).
The 2020 launch is the second stage of the ExoMars mission. The first stage, consisting of an experimental lander and an orbiter to study Martian atmosphere, took off from Russia’s spaceport in Baikonur Kazakhstan in March this year. The experimental lander, or Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module, is Europe’s first shot to land an object on the surface of Mars since the failed Beagle 2. The lander will test systems for the later landing of the rover.
The launch delay means that Europe might actually be beaten to Mars by China, which also announced plans to send a rover to the Red Planet in 2020. The only country so far that has successfully landed an object on Mars is the USA, which currently operates two rovers on the planet - Curiosity and Opportunity.
The ExoMars rover will carry a two-metre drill to access samples of soil underneath the Martian surface, which are believed to have the best chance to carry traces of life on the planet, if there ever was any.
A prototype ExoMars rover was used last week in an experiment when UK astronaut Tim Peake took control of it from the International Space Station and navigated it through a Mars-inspired sand pit, purpose-built on Airbus' Stevenage premises, into a mock Martian cave. Peake’s task was to use the rover to find several objects inside the cave. Rovers are designed to move fully autonomously, but engineers believe that in certain situations, for example in dark places, it might be easier and more accurate for a human controller to steer the machine.