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After breaking up with Russia, NASA comes to save Europe's never-ending mission to Mars

Artists impression of the Trace Gas Orbiter TGO top left and the entry descent and landing demonstra

NASA is giving a helping hand to its European colleagues, the European Space Agency (ESA) after it was announced that the U.S. space agency will be a new key partner in getting the Rosalind Franklin rover to Mars in 2028.

The Rosalind Franklin rover is part of the two-stage ExoMars mission, the idea of which traces back to 2001. It consists of two separate missions to Mars: the first was already executed in 2016 when Trace Gas Orbiter was sent to Mars along with Schiaparelli, a landing capability demonstrator for the follow-up rover mission.

ExoMars was a partnership between ESA and the Russian space agency Roskosmos. The Rosalind Franklin rover was scheduled for a 2020 flight, however, it was later postponed to 2022 due to developmental issues.

Then, Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 and just a month later the ties between agencies were definitively cut. As a result, the fate of Rosalind Franklin was cast in shadow, because Roskosmos was not only supposed to provide its Soyuz launcher but also contributed with hardware onboard the rover, that was supposed to be delivered to Mars on Russian-made lander Kazachok.

The mission was saved when a record ESA budget was approved in late 2022. That allowed the agency to seek new partnerships, such as the one announced this week:

“With this memorandum of understanding, the NASA Launch Services Program will procure a U.S. commercial launch provider for the Rosalind Franklin rover. The agency will also provide heater units and elements of the propulsion system needed to land on Mars.

“A new instrument on the rover will be the first drill to a depth of up to 6.5 feet (2 meters) deep below the surface to collect ice samples that have been protected from surface radiation and extreme temperatures.”

The Rosalind Franklin rover’s primary science instrument is the Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer which will search for the building blocks of life in the soil samples.

NASA will, once again, partner with the Department of Energy to use lightweight radioisotope heater units for the rover.

ESA said the mission’s next milestone will be the rover’s system preliminary design review in June 2024. If everything goes as planned, the mission will – finally – launch in 2028.

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