A final contract has been signed for completion of the ExoMars rover

ESA signs build contract for ExoMars rover project

Image credit: European Space Agency

The haunted ExoMars project has received the ultimate green light as the European Space Agency (ESA) signed a contract with prime contractor Thales Alenia Space to complete hardware for the 2020 rover mission.

The project, which had suffered a significant setback in October this year when a demonstrator lander crashed on the Red Planet, was already approved by ministers of ESA member states.

At a ministerial council earlier this month, the member states approved additional €440m of funding needed to complete the mission.

The contract between ESA and Thales covers the integration of scientific instruments onto the rover, development of the navigation and guidance system for the carrier module and integration of the descent and landing system with the parachute and onboard computer. The descent module itself is being built by Russian space agency Roscosmos.

“Following the renewed support demonstrated by ESA member states in the recent Ministerial Council, this new contract allows us to complete the flight models of the European elements and keeps us on track for a July 2020 launch,” said David Parker, ESA’s Director of Human Spaceflight and Robotic Exploration. “ExoMars is a cornerstone of ESA’s exploration programme. Using its miniaturised life-search laboratory and advanced robotic technology, the mission will explore the Red Planet in search of new evidence to answer questions that have long fascinated humanity.”

The rover will drill two metres deep into the Martian surface in search for traces of past or present life. The researchers believe that life may have survived deep underground, rather than on the harsh surface.

The 300kg rover, built by Airbus Defence and Space in the UK, as well as the carrier platform are expected to be handed over to Thales Alenia in January and February 2018 for the final integration. Various scientific instruments have been developed by research institutions from across Europe, Russia, as well as the USA.

Nasa was originally Europe’s main partner for the ExoMars mission but backed out in 2012 following budget cuts. The mission faced cancellation and was only saved after ESA struck a new partnership with Russia’s Roscosmos.

The rover mission, originally scheduled for 2018 is now expected to launch in the summer of 2020.

The landing site has not been determined. The ancient highland region of Oxia Planum is a strong candidate as it is believed to have held water in the past. The final landing site decision will only be made a few months ahead of the launch.

The rover, designed to operate on the surface of the Red Planet for 218 Martian days, or about 230 Earth days, will be lowered onto the planet by a landing system based on the one that was supposed to deliver the experimental Schiaparelli lander earlier this year.

The Schiaparelli landing failed due to a computer glitch that had the spacecraft think it was already on the ground while still miles above the surface. As a result, the lander turned off its rocket brakes and smashed into the ground at more than 300 km/h.

However, the lander kept sending data throughout its descent, which ESA will be able to use to fine-tune the landing system for the rover.

Schiaparelli travelled to Mars as a piggy-back onboard the Trace Gas Orbiter, which ESA described as the main part of the 2016 mission. The orbiter has successfully established itself in the orbit and has already started providing first scientific data. The craft is searching for the signs of methane in the Martian atmosphere, which could indicate the existence of life. The orbiter will also serve as a main data relay satellite for the 2020 rover.

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