Image credit: ESA/Mlabspace

The long-delayed European ExoMars Rosalind Franklin mission to the Red Planet got a boost for its projected launch in 2028.

A new Memorandum of Understanding was inked May 16 by the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA, thereby officially joining forces on the endeavor.

Two years ago, ESA cut ties with its Russian Roscosmos partner on ExoMars due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, skipping an intended launch window for the interplanetary mission.

ExoMars 2022 mission was a joint ESA/Roscosmos project. Shown is rover ready to depart Russia-provided landing module and science landing platform.
Credit: Thales Alenia Space/Master Image Programmes

Now ESA, its Member States and European industry, along with NASA, are hammering out new synergies and partnerships.

U.S. contributions

Here’s the new deal for ExoMars:

The U.S. will provide the launch service, elements of getting ExoMars down safe and sound on Mars, as well as heater units for the Rosalind Franklin rover.

In a statement from ESA, besides the launch service and throttleable braking engines, the main update is that NASA, in partnership with US Department of Energy (DOE), will provide the lightweight radioisotope heater units (RHUs) for the rover.

In parallel, work on the development and certification of a European RHU to fly on the mission will continue, led by the UK.

Credit: ESA/Mlabspace

Called the ESA GSTP/ENDURE program (ENDURE standing for ‘European Devices Using Radioisotope Energy’), the UK work is focused on delivery of an end-to-end European capability for radioisotope heat and power systems by the end of this decade.

Drilling down – politically and scientifically

ESA’s Rosalind Franklin rover is built to drill to a depth of up to 6.5 feet (two meters) below the surface.

Doing so, samples of Mars that have been protected from surface radiation and extreme temperatures will be studied onboard the rover.

In an exclusive interview last month with, Josef Aschbacher, ESA’s Director General, spotlighted ExoMars at the Space Foundation’s 39th Space Symposium, held in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Josef Aschbacher, ESA’s Director General.
Image credit: Barbara David

“ExoMars started around 2010-201l, with NASA originally a partner. But budget issues had NASA drop out. So then in working with Russia it moved forward for about 10 years. With war in Ukraine and the sanctions that our member states imposed on Russia, I could not finish the program,” Aschbacher said.

“And this is something quite drastic. The ExoMars rover was finished and ready for launch in September 2022. The war started in February 2022 so I stopped and terminated the cooperation with Russia,” Aschbacher said.

Finding some microbes?

As for how important ExoMars is in the ongoing study of the Red Planet, Aschbacher is ready for new, prime-time revelations.

“It will drill into the surface which is quite unique. There’s no chance to find life on the surface. You have to go down, and exobiologists are saying at least 1.5 meters and we go down 2 meters,” said Aschbacher.

“Can you imagine how exciting this will be? Just imagine finding some microbes of life and to analyze whether there is DNA or no DNA. Would the DNA be similar to ours or not? Unimaginable…and we just don’t know,” the ESA Director said.

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