December 19, 2018
Europe Calls on NASA for Help as Mars Mission Runs into Serious Trouble
ExoMars, and its robot rover Rosalind Franklin, may miss its launch window unless JPL engineers can fix some last-minute bugs
By Michael Moran Audience Writer
18:09, 15 DEC 2019 UPDATED 22:24, 16 DEC 2019
A mission to Mars due to launch next year is in trouble even before the countdown begins. ExoMars, a European Space Agency rover intended to drill beneath the Martian surface to search for signs of life, has suffered numerous major setbacks since it was originally approved by ESA bosses in 2005. Costs have rocketed, with the original estimate of a few hundred million Euros rising to more than a billion.
In particular, problems with the parachute that will be used to land ExoMars’s rover, named Rosalind after DNA pioneer Rosalind Franklin, safely on the Martian surface. ESA engineers have appealed to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for help, and trials of a new design for the parachute are expected to start trials in Pasadena early in the new year.
“It is going to be very, very tight getting the probe ready for next summer’s launch,” ExoMars project manager Pietro Baglioni told the Guardian. “I think we have only got a 50-50 chance we will be able to go ahead as scheduled.”
The plan is to slow the lander using a heatshield as it descends though the outer reaches of Mars’s thin atmosphere. That should slow it from an initial 13,000mph down to around 1,000mph. Then the parachute should deploy, slowing the lander further until it reaches 250mph. Finally, a second parachute will kick in, bringing Rosalind safely to the Mars surface.
“The entire sequence from atmospheric entry to landing will take only six minutes,” said Baglioni. “There is a great deal that can go wrong in that time, however.” If something were to go amiss with any one of those stages, the million-Euro lander will be smashed to smithereens.
Most recent Earth-based high-altitude tests of the parachutes have resulted in failure. Baglioni says that the latest tests, with NASA’s help, have gone well. “However,” he says, “the crunch will come when we repeat the high-altitude tests in February. “If the parachutes pass this test, we will have a tight but plausible timetable to get them fitted to ExoMars.
But if further tests or changes are needed, then it will get very tricky. I think we have a 50-50 chance of making our launch window between 26 July and 12 August.” NASA is planning a Mars mission of its own next year, a rover set to launch in July or August.
W. O. Belfield, Jr.