1026 GMT April 05, 2020
Most parts of the mission including the rocket and the rover, named Rosalind Franklin, are ready. But not enough time remains before the launch opportunity in July to complete tests of the parachutes, fix issues with an electronics module and finish the spacecraft’s software, The New York Times reported.
“We could launch, but that would mean we are not doing all the tests,” Jan Woerner, the director-general of the European Space Agency (ESA), said during a news conference on Thursday morning where the decision was announced. “We cannot really cut corners.”
The coronavirus pandemic played a role in the decision.
Dimitry Rogozin, head of Russia’s space agency, said that “force majeure circumstances related to exacerbation of the epidemiological situation in Europe” would leave mission staff from both countries unable to travel.
“This is a very tough decision, but it’s, I’m sure, the right one,” Woerner said.
The positions of Mars and Earth line up every 26 months, allowing a relatively quick trip. Missing that alignment means that the mission will stay on the ground until the next opportunity between August and October 2022.
The thin atmosphere of Mars makes landing particularly tricky, requiring careful testing of parachutes and other systems used to reach the surface. There is not enough air to provide much drag on the spacecraft as it speeds to the ground, although what’s there still generates friction that heats the exterior of a spacecraft to thousands of degrees.
Last year, the parachutes for the ExoMars mission – one that is 50 feet wide to deploy at supersonic speeds in the Martian atmosphere, and a second, 120-foot-wide one that would billow out at subsonic speeds – failed in tests.
With NASA’s help, the problems with the ExoMars parachutes were diagnosed and additional tests are planned for this month.
The spacecraft will be put in storage once it is completed later this year. No changes will be made to the spacecraft or the instruments, Woerner said.