Europe’s joint Mars mission with Russia ‘very unlikely’ due to war in Ukraine

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The launch of a joint Europe-Russian mission to Mars this year is now “very unlikely” due to sanctions imposed as a result of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the European Space Agency (ESA) said.

The space agency said that after a meeting of officials from its 22 member states, it was assessing the consequences of sanctions for its cooperation with Russia’s Roscosmos space agency.

“The sanctions and the wider context make a launch in 2022 very unlikely,” for the Europe-Russia ExoMars rover mission, the agency said in a statement. "We deplore the human casualties and tragic consequences of the war in Ukraine.

"We are giving absolute priority to taking proper decisions, not only for the sake of our workforce involved in the programmes, but in full respect of our European values, which have always fundamentally shaped our approach to international cooperation."

The launch had already been postponed from 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic and also because of technical problems.

The mission was due to blast off from the Baikonur spaceport in Kazakhstan in September 2022 using a Russian Proton rocket, carrying the Russian-built Kazachok lander and the Rosalind Franklin Rover - named after the British scientist who co-discovered the structure of DNA and assembled by Airbus UK.

The aim was for the space hardware to land safely on the surface of Mars eight months later. Postponing a launch (again) often means waiting for months or years until another window opens when the planets are in the right alignment.

The goal is to put Europe’s first rover on the Red Planet to help determine whether there has ever been life on Mars. A test rover launched in 2016 ultimately crash-landed on Mars, highlighting the difficulty of putting a spacecraft on the planet's surface.

The Rosalind Franklin Rover is intended to be the second stage in the two-part ExoMars space programme. The first stage involved launching a satellite to Mars in 2016. This is now in situ, studying the planet's atmosphere and waiting to act as a telecommunications relay platform for Rosalind Franklin, once she arrives.

There are at present no firm plans to reschedule the launch date.

On Saturday, Roscosmos said it was pulling its personnel from the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, in retaliation against EU economic sanctions. Several European satellites have been launched with Russian rockets from there, with more scheduled over the coming year.

French President Emmanuel Macron said earlier this month that Europe needs a bolder space policy, arguing that its sovereignty is at stake if it falls behind rival powers in a key field for technology, science and military competitiveness.

While Europe has its own rockets to put satellites into orbit, it relies on Russian and American partners to send astronauts into space.

Nasa’s head of space operations said on Monday that the agency is operating the International Space Station with Russian support and input, as usual. Flight control teams are still communicating, training and working together, Kathy Lueders said.

“Obviously, we understand the global situation, where it is, but as a joint team, these teams are operating together,” she added.

The US and Russia are the key operators of the space station, which is a partnership of five space agencies. Four Americans, two Russians and a German are currently at the station.

“We’ve operated in these kind of situations before and both sides always operated very professionally,” Lueders said.

Nasa astronaut Mark Vande Hei is scheduled to return to Earth at the end of March with two Russians in a Soyuz capsule and Nasa said that this is still on track.

Russia’s capsules were the only way to and from the space station after Nasa’s shuttles retired in 2011 and until SpaceX’s first crew flight in 2020.

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