With the help of NASA, ESA resumes mission to search for life on Mars – 03/19/2023 – Sidereal Messenger

With the help of NASA, ESA resumes mission to search for life on Mars – 03/19/2023 – Sidereal Messenger

It’s decided: after a year in limbo, the European ExoMars mission, destined to place a rover on the surface of Mars to search for evidence of past or present life on the red planet, has the green light to proceed. The expectation is to launch it in 2028.

After several years of delays, the last one caused by the need to test and validate the parachutes for the daring project, everything was ready for departure in 2022. And then Russia invaded Ukraine. In response, the ESA (European Space Agency) decided to suspend its partnership with the Russians in the project, which in essence made it unfeasible. After all, the mission would be launched by a Russian rocket and would descend on Mars with a landing module also provided by Roscosmos, the Russian space agency.

After decades of work, for a while it looked like the Rosalind Franklin rover (named after the scientist whose work played an important role in deciphering the structure of the DNA molecule) was destined to become a museum piece. The ESA seriously considered this possibility. But in the end, the space agency decided to keep the project standing at the end of 2022, adding 360 million euros to develop European parts capable of replacing Russian elements (the total cost is estimated at 1.3 billion euros).

There was also a movement to ask NASA for help, and the US space agency did not miss the chance to expand its influence by modestly helping to save the European mission. There is a commitment that the US will supply lander propulsion elements as well as plutonium batteries for the rover.

Indeed, in its budget proposal for 2024 (still to be approved by the US Congress), the American agency already lists expenses with ExoMars, with a request of around US$ 30 million. “The exact amount is still being determined, as well as the investment for the coming years,” wrote the ESA Twitter account for the mission.

Continuing the work on the European side involves not only building the replacement landing module, but also keeping everything that is ready in order. Last week, the mission team celebrated the success of the third successful test of the rover’s deep drilling system, in terrain simulating Mars conditions at the Thales Alenia Space facility in Turin, Italy. The test was done with a twin of the rover that exists for this purpose. The drill managed to penetrate 1.7 meters into the ground. If you repeat the performance on Mars, you will do something totally new. The current record for drilling and subsequently collecting a sample on Mars belongs to NASA’s Perseverance rover, but it is quite modest: 7.1 cm.

However, another American mission tried to drill deeper into the ground. The InSight probe sought to install a thermometer at a depth of at least three meters – but not more than a few centimeters. It remains to be seen whether ExoMars will achieve a better result. And, before that, whether this “plan B” with the exclusion of Russia will finally succeed in carrying out the mission.

This column is published on Mondays in the printed version, in Folha Corrida.

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