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Euro-Russian Mars rover faces two-year delay, coronavirus partly to blame

Europe and Russia’s joint mission to send a rover vehicle to Mars has been delayed for two years while further tests are conducted.

The European Space Agency (ESA) and Russian state space corporation Roscosmos said ExoMars experts have concluded that tests necessary to “make all components of the spacecraft fit for the Mars adventure” need more time to be completed.

The mission’s primary goal is to determine whether the planet ever supported life and to discover more about how water has travelled across its surface.

Revealing the delay at a video press conference from Paris, ESA director general Jan Woerner said, “After carefully reviewing reports, we have together accepted the advice that launching this year would mean sacrificing essential remaining tests.

“We have therefore jointly decided, and today confirmed, this decision to move the ExoMars mission to a later launch opportunity, namely 2022. This is a very tough decision, but it is, I’m sure, the right one.”

While the coronavirus outbreak has not directly impacted the launch delay, it has meant the movement of those working on the rover has been limited in recent days.

Professor Woerner explained: “We discussed all these issues before the virus outbreak was as strong as it is right now in Europe, so - and even at that time we said - the probability reduced from day to day. So to say coronavirus is the one and only reason, that would be not at all fair.

“But of course now, in this situation, we see that the coronavirus has also an impact on the preparation, because people from different places of industry in Russia, in Italy and France cannot move easily as in the past, so therefore there is also an impact.

“I would not like to say the coronavirus is the one and only reason, but it has an impact on the mission, yes.”

The team are now working towards a new launch date some time between August and October 2022.

So far, all flight hardware needed for the launch of ExoMars has been integrated into the spacecraft.

The Kazachok landing platform is fully equipped with thirteen scientific instruments, while the Rosalind Franklin rover – which has nine instruments - recently passed its final thermal and vacuum tests in France. The six-wheeled rover is equipped with a two-metre drill to take samples from below the Martian planetary surface.

The latest ExoMars parachutesdynamic extraction tests have also been completed at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, while the main parachutes are ready for the two final high-altitude drop tests later this month.

However, the ExoMars descent module and landing platform are still undergoing environmental testing in France to confirm whether the spacecraft is ready to endure the harsh conditions of space.

Europe’s first planetary rover was assembled at Airbus in Stevenage, Hertfordshire. The project, which started in 2005, has waited a long time for completion, facing a number of obstacles along the way.

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