Earlier this month, the European Space Agency (ESA) delayed the launch of its pioneering ExoMars rover by two years from 2018 to 2020. Now, it has emerged that the head of ESA is not happy about the delay. Not happy at all.
“I’m very upset about it and I don’t understand it from a certain point of view,” ESA Director-General Johann-Dietrich Woerner told reporters in Prague this week, reported SpaceNews. "I was not only surprised but very frustrated when I got the information that there is again a problem of delay," he added to BBC News.
This joint European-Russian mission is the second part of the troubled ExoMars project, which was initially set to launch in 2011. It includes a rover that is intended to perform one of the most extensive searches for life on Mars to date. The first part of the mission, an orbiter to study the Martian atmosphere and a demonstration lander, launched in March this year.
But the frequent delays are threatening to overshadow the mission, or worse, scrap it entirely. Woerner said he was worried the overruns could require money to be siphoned from elsewhere in the agency, something he was not willing to do. “I thought we were finished with the numbers. Now we have new numbers and this does not make me happy,” he said.
The rover would drill beneath the surface of Mars. ESA/AOES Medialab
This would be the first rover ESA has sent to Mars, and the most in-depth search for past or present life since NASA’s Viking landers in the 1970s. The rover includes a drill, which would analyze samples up to 2 meters (6.5 feet) below the surface. But if the project cannot be brought under control, this mission runs the risk of never getting off the ground. The issues appear to stem from various components developed for the rover by a number of different subcontractors.
Woerner said a decision would be made in June this year on whether to allocate the required funding to ExoMars to ensure it meets its revised launch date in 2020 (owing to the orbits of Earth and Mars, missions to the Red Planet take-off in launch windows every 26 months). With the hardware issues that have caused this latest delay still unclear, however, there appears to be concerns that the rover may not even be ready to launch in 2020 without additional funding. If that’s the case, it runs the risk of being scrapped.
And that would be a huge blow not only to ESA, but countless other scientists around the world who have been eagerly awaiting this mission. We can but hope that the problems will be resolved, and the Red Planet will get its latest visitor by the end of the decade.