Putin’s Ukraine War prompts scientists to cancel a much-anticipated mission to find life on Mars

March 17, 2022, 7:54 PM UTC

Biologists around the world wondering whether life ever existed on Mars will have to wait even longer to find out the answer thanks to Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine.

An international research project to probe the Red Planet’s surface that is some 20 years in the making has been shelved indefinitely after the European Space Agency canceled its partnership with Russia following the imposition of Western sanctions. 

“This makes it practically and politically impossible to launch ExoMars in September,” ESA director general Josef Aschbacher told reporters on Thursday following the conclusion of an ESA Council meeting. 

The ExoMars craft had been due for takeoff from the Cosmodrome space port in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. In June of the following year some 264 days later, the rover was to deploy to the surface using a landing module provided by Russian partner Roscosmos.

In addition, then, to the suffering and destruction visited upon Ukraine, Putin’s invasion will now exact a scientific toll as well. It will deprive the international community of an opportunity to discover extraterrestrial organisms under the seemingly barren surface of Mars. 

“People have been working on this project for decades, looking forward to the results, and then—more or less on the launchpad—the mission is not launched. I can understand the frustration of people,” Aschbacher said.

While the two planets’ orbital paths put the next open launch window at 2024, the ESA director general said the most realistic date is two years after that, and even this was ambitious. 

Over $1 billion spent

His team would now evaluate options including resuming the previous cooperation with NASA that fell apart in 2012, leading to ESA’s striking a deal with the Russians months later. 

Since ESA will have to come up with a new budget proposal, Aschbacher said it was too soon to estimate the costs. Nevertheless, the now-scrapped program thus far required investments of over €1 billion ($1.1 billion) for Europe.

“It’s not wasted money, let me be clear, it’s been well invested; industry learned a lot and produced the hardware that would have been ready for launch,” he said.

An important consolation, according to the ESA director general, was the knowledge that if the ExoMars spacecraft eventually lands sometime later this decade, it will still deliver never-before-seen findings to the scientific community.

So while NASA’s Perseverance rover may have won headlines around the world for touching down successfully on Mars last year, its ESA equivalent is better suited to search for signs of extraterrestrial organisms where they are most likely to be found: underground.

Only the ExoMars vehicle Rosalind Franklin, named after a British scientist who performed landmark research into the building blocks of life, comes equipped with a drill that can extract soil and rock from two meters deep—far enough to be shielded from harmful cosmic rays that bombard the surface.

“It’s important to emphasize nobody else has built an analytical life-search machine capable of searching at the molecular level the possibility of past life,” said David Parker, director of human and robotic exploration at ESA. 

Other programs that were to be carried out with Russian assistance are also on the chopping block.

‘Agonizing decision’

ESA was also due to launch five satellites from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, in the coming months. Two of them, Euclid and EarthCARE, were to perform important research into dark matter as well as the role clouds and aerosols play in reflecting solar radiation back into space. 

Russia, however, pulled its teams out of Kourou, and with it the necessary Soyuz rockets that would carry them into orbit. 

The only positive message ESA had to report was that life on the International Space Station was continuing largely as normal. Aschbacher said it was closely consulting with NASA on how to operate the ISS without boosters from Russia that help maintain orbit. 

As a result, it was Thursday’s ExoMars decision that clearly hurt the most.

ESA’s Parker said there were literally hundreds of scientists and engineers across Europe, the United States, and Russia who had worked tirelessly to overcome challenges to develop a spacecraft ready to launch in September.

“I cannot disguise in any way, of course, the disappointment of the people involved in this project over so many years. It’s really been an agonizing decision,” the exploration chief told reporters.

“Mars is four and a half billion years old, so I guess we have to wait a few more years for it to reveal all of its secrets and maybe answer this fundamental question: Was there ever life on Mars?”

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