The Spanish instrument to look for life on Mars remains on the ground due to the war in Ukraine

“We expected it, but it’s a stick,” he tells SINC Andoni Moralesof the Instituto Nacional de Tecnologia Aeroespacial (INTA), project manager of the Spanish scientific instrument on board the ship ExoMars, whose release has just been suspended. Several dozen engineers and scientists spent fifteen years developing this Raman Laser Spectrometer (RLS), one of the most sophisticated instruments the ExoMars robotic rover has used to search for signs of life on Mars.

Morale is pessimistic that the mission, or at least its European part, will never fly. ExoMars is a collaboration between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia, and was about to be moved to Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for launch in September.

Director General of ESA Josef Ashbacher He assured Thursday afternoon at a press conference that he “will study other options” so that the robotic vehicle or Rosalind Franklin Rover reaches the Martian surface, “without ruling out cooperation with NASA”. But Moral sees serious downsides.

In two years there is not enough time to change the launcher, to create a new entry, descent and landing system… It takes at least six years. The only option was to wait for the war to end and for there to be peace in two years, but it is unlikely

Andoni Moral, from INTA

The collaboration of Europe and Russia on ExoMars was not a mere subcontract. “It’s a complete, very close collaboration,” says Moral. The platform on which the rover is mounted – named Rosalind Franklin – is Russian, as is the launcher – a rocket. Soyuz— as well as mission-critical parts such as the entry, descent, and landing system.

“SWithout Russia’s participation, this system would have to be developed practically from scratch, would cost billions and take five or six years”, explains Moral. In addition, the landing pad carries a unit of radioisotopes to provide power to the rover, and this is a technology that Europa does not have.

“In two years there is not enough time to change the launcher, to create a new entry, descent and landing system… Not even in four years. It takes at least six years,” says Moral. “And maintaining all the mission equipment until 2029 would be extremely expensive. The only option was to wait for the war to end and for there to be peace in two years… But that’s unlikely. The decision is pretty obvious.”

two decades of work

The mission was designed twenty years ago and had already suffered several delays. ESA’s chief mission scientist, Jorge Vagosent a message to the numerous researchers participating in the mission informing them “with immense sadness” of the decision by ESA Member States to suspend ExoMars.

The instrument has a very astrobiology-oriented goal: to look for evidence of past life on the surface of Mars.

Olga Prieto Ballesteros, scientist at CAB

In Spain, other INTA groups are collaborating on the instrumentation of the ExoMars landing pad to measure dust and environmental conditions on the surface of Mars. But the most expensive, complex and innovative instrument is the RLS spectrometerin which between 10 and 30 engineers and scientists worked in different periods.

institutions of France, United Kingdom and Germanyintegrated into an international consortium that started working together in 2005. Spain leads the consortium, whose chief scientist is Fernando Rullresearcher at the Astrobiology Center of the Unit Associated with the Spectroscopy Group in Cosmogeochemistry and Astrobiology at the University of Valladolid.

The Exomars Raman Laser Spectrometer (RLS), developed in Spain. / INTA

“At INTA we develop all phases of the RLS: the concept, the manufacture and the verification and delivery”, says Moral. The instrument has “a very astrobiology-oriented goal: to look for evidence of past life on the surface of Mars,” he explains. Olga Prieto Ballesterosmission scientist, Center for Astrobiology (CAB).

International collaboration is essential in space. Scientific diplomacy continues to exist and on a personal level the relationship continues, but institutionally we have to align ourselves with the sanctions imposed on Russia by our Member States.

Anna Rathsman, Chairperson of the ESA Board

The RLS had to analyze with high sensitivity samples also from the Martian subsoil, up to 2 meters deep. Prieto, who has been with the project for about three years, understands “the great frustration” of the more veteran members of the team, as well as that of Russian scientists, “who are not to blame”.

Anna Rathman, Chairman of the ESA Council, said at the press conference: “International collaboration is essential in space. Scientific diplomacy continues to exist and on a personal level the relationship remains, but institutionally we have to fully align ourselves with the sanctions imposed on Russia by our Member States”.

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