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NASA and ESA Finalize Agreement for European Mars Rover Mission

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have finalized their collaboration on the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover mission, which is scheduled for launch in 2028.

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Zac Aubert

Zac Aubert

Fri May 17 2024Written by Zac Aubert

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have finalized their collaboration on the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover mission, which is scheduled for launch in 2028.

The formal agreement was signed on May 16 at ESA’s headquarters in Paris, solidifying NASA's significant contributions to the project.

Under the agreement, NASA will provide several critical components, including throttable braking engines for a new descent stage being developed by ESA and radioisotope heating units (RHUs) to keep the spacecraft warm. These RHUs harness heat from the decay of plutonium-238, and their deployment necessitates a launch from the United States on a NASA-procured vehicle.

The collaboration a crucial step following the dissolution of ESA’s previous partnership with Roscosmos. Roscosmos was initially responsible for developing the landing platform and launching the spacecraft on a Proton rocket in September 2022. However, ESA terminated this collaboration shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

To replace the lost capabilities, ESA has embarked on developing its own landing system for the rover.

On April 9, 2024, ESA awarded a 522 million euro ($566 million) contract to Thales Alenia Space to restart the mission. The contract tasks Thales with developing a new landing platform, supplemented by NASA’s contributions of engines and RHUs that are not readily available in Europe.

“This pivotal agreement strengthens our collaborative efforts for the ExoMars program and ensures that the Rosalind Franklin rover will set its wheels on Martian soil in 2030,” - Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration.

While the exact value of NASA’s contributions was not disclosed, the agency's fiscal year 2025 budget proposal, released in March, requested $49.2 million for its work on the Rosalind Franklin mission, projecting a total expenditure of $339 million through fiscal year 2029. This period extends to the planned late 2028 launch of the mission.

The Rosalind Franklin rover represents a significant scientific endeavor for NASA, particularly as it seeks to rejuvenate its Mars Sample Return program — another cooperative effort with ESA facing cost overruns and schedule delays.

Other than ESCAPADE, a smallsat Mars orbiter mission slated for launch as early as this fall, NASA currently has no other robotic Mars missions planned.

“The Rosalind Franklin rover’s unique drilling capabilities and onboard samples laboratory have outstanding scientific value for humanity’s search for evidence of past life on Mars,” - Nicola Fox, NASA Associate Administrator for Science

Although the announcement did not detail additional roles NASA might undertake in the mission due to its contributions, the agency has a history of scientific partnerships. Previously, NASA was involved with one of the rover’s instruments, the Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer.

“The expectation among Mars researchers is that NASA will gain the opportunity to select members of the Rosalind Franklin science team through a participating scientist program. That’s typically what we try and do when we’re cooperating with our international partners on missions. That’s definitely in the plan.” - Lori Glaze, Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division,

As this mission progresses, the combined expertise and resources of NASA and ESA aim to push the boundaries of our understanding of Mars and the potential for past life on the Red Planet.