Europe will issue new ExoMars lander contract in a few months for beleaguered Mars rover (exclusive)

illustration of rover on mars with pale sky in behind
A visualization of the European ExoMars rover on the surface of the Red Planet. (Image credit: ESA/ATG Media Lab)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. The head of Europe's space agency says a new Red Planet lander is coming for the much-delayed ExoMars mission.

Josef Aschbacher, the director general of the European Space Agency (ESA), says the agency will soon release a contract opportunity to design the ExoMars mission's lander, to replace the Russian one lost when their partnership severed in 2022.

"We will issue a contract for the development of the lander, and this will go out soon, in the next few months or so," Aschbacher told July 1, hours after the Euclid "dark universe" mission launched here. "This is all in full preparation."

The European Space Agency's Mars mission is now expected to launch no earlier than 2028, eight years past its original expectation. This is due to both technical problems and the loss of Russia following the unsanctioned and internationally condemned invasion of Ukraine last year.

Related: Europe's record-breaking space budget to save beleaguered ExoMars rover

ExoMars was originally set to leave Earth in 2020, but was delayed due to issues with the parachute system for the Russian lander and the pandemic, among other items. Then, when Russia and ESA severed their partnership in early 2022 following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the Rosalind Franklin rover was left with neither a lander nor a rocket; both were expected to be provided by Russia.

The rover is designed to drill for signs of Martian life much deeper than NASA's Perseverance can reach. It is thought that microbes might be better suited to the Martian underground, where they would be protected from the ultraviolet radiation and solar wind that pummels the Red Planet's surface.

To save the mission, ESA representatives recently approved a record-breaking budget of 16.9 billion Euros ($17.6 billion) over three years, which includes 360 million Euros for ExoMars. 

NASA may also contribute a braking engine, radioisotope heating units to fight back against the Martian cold and possibly a launcher, Aschbacher said in news reports last November. (ESA prefers to use European rockets where possible, however.)

The White House's 2024 budget request, released in March 2023, included mention of a NASA contribution to ExoMars with no specific amounts allocated. Aschbacher told on July 1 that the latest he's heard is that negotiations are ongoing. ESA, he said, is hoping for "a small amount" of money from NASA.

The multi-mission ExoMars also includes the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which launched to Mars in 2016. Its goal is to search for less abundant compounds in the carbon dioxide-heavy Mars atmosphere, including methane (which may signal life or not, depending on the process that created it). 

TGO also brought a demonstrator mission to Mars called the Schiaparelli Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM), which crashed upon landing.

Elizabeth Howell was in Florida to cover Euclid's launch under co-sponsorship by Canadian Geographic magazine and Canada's University of Waterloo. has independent control of its news coverage. 

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: