European Space Agency suspends Mars mission with Russia

The decision was made unanimously by ESA's ruling council
Originally Published: 17 MAR 22 13:11 ET

(CNN) — The mission to launch Europe’s first planetary rover — designed to search for signs of life on Mars — has been suspended, the European Space Agency said Thursday.

The ExoMars Rover, a collaboration between ESA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos, had been on track to leave for Mars in September this year. But ESA said last month that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had made that “very unlikely.”

The decision to suspend cooperation with Roscosmos on the project was made unanimously by ESA’s ruling council, which met in Paris on Wednesday and Thursday to assess the situation arising from the war in Ukraine. The council said it had authorized a study to see whether there were any options “for a way forward” for the mission.

Launch windows are delicate and timely for missions heading to Mars from Earth. The rover, known as both ExoMars and Rosalind Franklin in honor of the English chemist and DNA pioneer, was initially scheduled to launch in July 2020 but was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The space agency said in a statement that it deeply deplored “the human casualties and tragic consequences of the aggression towards Ukraine. While recognising the impact on scientific exploration of space, ESA is fully aligned with the sanctions imposed on Russia by its Member States.”

The mission is intended to search for life on Mars and investigate the history of water on the red planet. The rover has the capability to drill beneath the surface of Mars to a depth of 6.5 feet (2 meters), where the scientists hope they may find signs of life.

Despite suspending the Mars mission, ESA said that the International Space Station program continues to operate as planned.

“The main goal is to continue safe operations of the ISS, including maintaining the safety of the crew.”

There are currently four NASA astronauts, two Russian cosmonauts and one European astronaut living and working on board the orbiting outpost. On Friday, three more Russian cosmonauts are expected to arrive.

The mounting geopolitical tensions have seen retired US astronaut Scott Kelly clash on Twitter with the head of the Russian space agency.

Such conflicts are “damaging” to the space station’s mission, a NASA official has warned. The agency said it’s still working closely with Roscosmos, and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei will “for sure” return from the space station later this month aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft as previously planned.

In light of the situation in Ukraine, the ESA will convene an extraordinary session of the space agency’s ruling council in the coming weeks, the statement said.

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