Europe, Russia postpone Mars rover mission amid coronavirus travel restrictions

The European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos said Thursday they are postponing a planned joint mission to Mars until 2022, in part due to travel restrictions resulting from the new coronavirus outbreak

The ExoMars mission was due to launch this year but concerns about possible technical problems had already prompted both agencies to discuss the delay.

“It is driven primarily by the need to maximize the robustness of all ExoMars systems as well as force majeure circumstances related to exacerbation of the epidemiological situation in Europe which left our experts practically no possibility to proceed with travels to partner industries,” Roscosmos’ director-general Dmitry Rogozin said in a statement.

The mission’s goal is to put a rover on the red planet to help determine whether there has ever been life on Mars. Scientists hope the rover, packed with high-tech instruments and named after British chemist Rosalind Franklin, will be able to dig for biological signatures of life below the Martian surface and also provide further insights into the planet’s history of water.

It is the latest setback for the ExoMars program, which saw the launch of an orbiter and a test lander in 2016. The Trace Gas Orbiter was successfully deployed but the Schiaparelli lander malfunctioned and crashed on the surface of Mars, highlighting the difficulty of putting a probe on the planet.

“We want to make ourselves 100 per cent sure of a successful mission,” said ESA Director General Jan Woerner. “We cannot allow ourselves any margin of error. More verification activities will ensure a safe trip and the best scientific results on Mars.”

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