Jack KiralyJun 13, 2024

Europe goes to Mars

The ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover is back on track

The Rosalind Franklin Rover would be Europe’s first rover on the Red Planet. Initially, Roscosmos was a key partner in the rover, providing the landing platform and a suite of scientific instruments. The partnership was suspended due to geopolitical tensions following Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022. In May 2024, NASA and ESA signed a partnership agreement to get the rover down to the surface, leveraging the American space agency’s extensive experience landing and operating robots on the surface of Mars.

What is ExoMars?

ExoMars (formally Exobiology on Mars) was established in 2013 as the astrobiology program of the European Space Agency and Roscosmos, the space agency for the Russian Federation. The program originally included two missions to Mars: an orbiter and a rover, intended for launch dates in 2016 and 2018 respectively. ExoMars was established with the goal of exploring Mars to search for signs of past life. 

The first phase of the program included the launch of ExoMars 2016, commonly known as the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO). This spacecraft was designed to study the Martian atmosphere to search for and characterize gasses that could indicate biological or geological activity. Included with TGO was the Schiaparelli Lander, which failed to land softly on the Martian surface. TGO is actively providing useful information about the Martian atmosphere, exceeding its expected lifespan and serving as a communications relay for NASA’s surface operations.

ExoMars orbiter and rover
ExoMars orbiter and rover An artist’s impression of the ExoMars rover (foreground), surface science platform (background) and the Trace Gas Orbiter (top). Not to scale.Image: ESA/ATG medialab

The second phase of the ExoMars program involved the ESA-Roscosmos partnership landing and operating a Mars rover, referred to as ExoMars 2018, 2020, and 2022 based on the anticipated landing date. The rover would be designed to drill into the Martian subsurface to search for signs of past life using a suite of advanced scientific instruments. In 2018, the ExoMars rover’s landing site was determined to be Oxia Planum, an equatorial region of the planet with multiple channels that are believed to have been formed by rivers of liquid water.

Landing a rover on Mars is no small feat – only the United States and China have successfully done so. As a first for the agency, an ExoMars rover proved to be an exciting opportunity to advance the continent’s space capabilities. 

To engage the public on the exciting possibility, the ExoMars team tapped a tried and tested method for public engagement: a naming competition. Over the course of the solicitation, over 36,000 names were submitted by citizens of ESA Member States. In a ceremony in early 2019, the rover’s name was officially unveiled: Rosalind Franklin, a prominent British chemist who discovered the structure of DNA.

ExoMars rover name annonced
ExoMars rover name annonced The name of the ExoMars rover was revealed at an event in the “Mars Yard” at Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage, UK. Pictured is Dr. Alice Bunn, International Director for the UK Space Agency, during the ceremony.Image: ESA

The rover was on its way to becoming a first for the European and Russian space agencies and a testament to international collaboration in space. The European Space Agency would build the rover and manage the procurement of its scientific instruments, including multiple contributions from NASA and other international partners. Russia would provide launch and landing services, including a landing platform, known as Kazachok, with its own suite of cameras and instruments to monitor the environment of Oxia Planum. The rover was on track for launch in September 2022.

Space Politics

Geopolitics plays a significant role in space exploration, influencing partnerships, stoking non-violent competition, and defining clear mission objectives. However, the impact of geopolitics does not always result in progress. Following the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, the European Space Agency severed all ties with Roscosmos, including on the ExoMars program. With this decision, the rover was now without a way to get to the surface of Mars. The rover was put into storage and the Russian hardware, including two science instruments and the Kazachok lander, were returned to Roscosmos. In the intervening two years, the European Space Agency performed tests, maintained the rover and its components in storage, and searched for opportunities with industry and other space agencies to get the rover to the surface of Mars so it could perform its scientific search for life.

European Space Agency 🤝 NASA

In April 2024, ESA announced that the Rosalind Franklin Rover would be resurrected under the moniker ExoMars 2028. Key elements of the rover will be constructed by Thales Alenia Space, a renowned spacecraft manufacturer. The spacecraft will be launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, marking a further commitment from the United States to support ESA and their ExoMars program.

An MOU for the Rosalind Franklin rover
An MOU for the Rosalind Franklin rover ESA Director of Human and Robotic Exploration Daniel Neuenschwander (left) and NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate Nicola Fox (right) in Paris, France after signing the new Memorandum of Understanding on the Rosalind Franklin Rover.Image: ESA

Following the April announcement, NASA and ESA signed an updated agreement to formalize their collaboration on the ExoMars program and the Rosalind Franklin Rover. Notably, NASA will not only provide the launch services for the mission but will also supply the rover with a propulsion system needed to land on the surface of Mars and radioisotope heater units to keep the rover’s instruments at optimal temperature. Collaboration between ESA and NASA is nothing new, but this agreement marks a major milestone in the expanding relationship between the two space agencies. 

The Rosalind Franklin Rover is now scheduled to launch sometime between October and December 2028, with a plan to land in 2030. Despite the hurdles that the ExoMars program faced, ESA has maintained robust support for its effort to explore Mars. And now with its partnership with NASA, the continent’s first rover is on its way to searching for past or present life on the Red Planet.

The Time is Now.

As a Planetary Defender, you’re part of our mission to decrease the risk of Earth being hit by an asteroid or comet.

Donate Today