Europe’s Mars Rover Unlikely to Launch in 2022 Due to Russian Invasion

The robot designed to search for traces of life on the Red Planet was originally scheduled to ride a Russian rocket into to space this fall

Illustration of a six-wheeled martian rover on a desert-like landscape
An illustration of the six-wheeled rover, which has a drill and onboard instruments to sample and analyze the Martian surface.  The European Space Agency (ESA).

It's “very unlikely” that Europe's Mars rover will launch this year, the European Space Agency (ESA) said Monday.

The ExoMars mission, a joint project between ESA and the Russian space agency, was scheduled to leave for Mars in September. The rover was originally going to ride a Russian rocket into space and land on the Red Planet nine months later using Russian hardware, according to Mack DeGeurin for Gizmodo. Now, the rover’s launch from Kazakhstan has been postponed because of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

“We deplore the human casualties and tragic consequences of the war in Ukraine,” says the ESA, an agency of 22 member states, in a statement. “We are giving absolute priority to taking proper decisions, not only for the sake of our workforce involved in the programs, but in full respect of our European values, which have always fundamentally shaped our approach to international cooperation.”

The international mission is designed to deliver the Rosalind Franklin rover, also known as the ExoMars rover, to the Martian surface to search for signs of life. Once landed on the Red Planet, Rosalind Franklin will use its 6-foot drill and onboard instruments to learn more about the physical and chemical properties of Mars. 

Though Western and European nations have a long history of working with Russia on space exploration even during times of tension, the recent invasion of Ukraine was a tipping point for partnering countries. 

"I must say that hitherto I have been broadly in favor of continuing artistic and scientific collaboration but in the current circumstances, it's hard to see how even those can continue as normal," says UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to Jonathan Amos for BBC.

The ESA suggests a delay of at least two years for the ExoMars mission carrying the Rosalind Franklin rover, Tereza Pultarova reports for Space. Scientists have a narrow window to launch the mission when Mars is closest to Earth, or they must wait another 26 months.

The rover was first scheduled to launch in 2018 but was postponed because of funding and engineering issues. Then, the ExoMars mission was delayed to 2022 due to the Covid-19 pandemic and technical challenges.

A formal decision on the rover’s fate would be made after analyzing all the options, the European Space Agency says in a statement