Europe ending cooperation with Russia on life-hunting Mars rover

An artist's impression of the Rosalind Franklin rover, which is testing its life-detection capabilities using samples of microbes from Lost Hammer Spring.
An artist's impression of Europe's life-hunting Rosalind Franklin Mars rover, which is scheduled to launch toward the Red Planet in the late 2020s. (Image credit: ESA/ATG Medialab)

It's official: Russia will no longer be part of Europe's life-hunting Mars rover mission, which is scheduled to launch in the late 2020s.

The European Space Agency (ESA) had been developing that mission in cooperation with its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, as part of a broader program called ExoMars

The original plan called for the rover, named Rosalind Franklin, to launch atop a Russian Proton rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome, a site in Kazakhstan that's run by Roscosmos and the Russian military. Rosalind Franklin was also supposed to touch down with, and be deployed from, a Russian-built lander called Kazachok.

Life on Mars: Exploration and evidence

But ESA suspended Russian participation in the rover mission after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February. That suspension will now be upgraded to a termination, ESA chief Josef Aschbacher just announced.

During a meeting on Tuesday (July 12), the ESA Council acknowledged "that the circumstances which led to the suspension of the cooperation with Roscosmos — the war in Ukraine and the resulting sanctions — continue to prevail," Aschbacher said via Twitter Tuesday.

"As a consequence, Council mandated me to officially terminate the currently suspended cooperation with Roscosmos on the ExoMars Rover and Surface Platform mission. New insights on the way forward with other partners will come at a media briefing on 20 July, details to come," he added in another tweet.

This decision has major implications for the mission, of course. For example, Rosalind Franklin had been scheduled to launch this September, but the need to find a new rocket and a new landing platform now make a liftoff before 2028 unlikely, mission team members have said. (Mars and Earth align properly for interplanetary launches just once every 26 months.)

Many other Russian space partnerships have frayed or dissolved as a result of Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Russian rocket engines are no longer sold to American companies, for instance, and the French company Arianespace isn't launching satellites to orbit using Russian-built Soyuz rockets anymore, as it once commonly did.

The ESA-Roscosmos partnership on the two-phase ExoMars program had been a long one. The program's first phase centered on the European Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli landing demonstrator, which launched toward the Red Planet atop a Russian Proton rocket from Baikonur in March 2016. 

TGO made it to Mars orbit safely and continues to study the planet today. Schiaparelli, which aimed to prove out landing tech ahead of the ExoMars rover's arrival, crashed during its touchdown attempt in October 2016.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook.  

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.