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ExoMars falls victim of Putin's war


Special report, graphics and photography by Anatoly Zak | Editor: Alain Chabot

The two-year delay of the ExoMars launch from 2020 to 2022 seemingly gave the beleaguered project plenty of time to tidy up all the loose ends and prepare for the launch campaign in 2022 with comfortable time reserves. However, the full-scale invasion of Ukraine killed Russia's last chance to operate a vehicle on the surface of the Red Planet, while delaying the launch of the European-led mission until at least 2028.


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Trace Gas orbiter, TGO, orbiter

The centerpiece of the ExoMars-2016 project is the nearly 3.4-ton spacecraft designated Trace Gas Orbiter, TGO. After releasing a small probe to the surface of Mars, the TGO should enter orbit around the Red Planet to help answer some of the most intriguing questions about this alien world.


Schiaparelli, EDM, lander

The Schiaparelli lander (previously known as Entry Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module, EDM) became only the second European attempt to land on Mars after the ill-fated mission of the Beagle-2 lander which disappeared on the surface of the Red Planet in December 2003.


Origin of the ExoMars-2016/2018 project

First conceived in Europe as a rover mission, ExoMars was later split into a two-part program developed jointly by NASA and ESA. In 2011, NASA essentially dropped out from the project, leaving it at the brink of the cancellation, unless Russia would agree to provide its rockets for the dual mission. Fortunately, it did.


Mission status in 2015: A difficult road to Baikonur

In 2015, the orbiter and the lander for the ExoMars-2016 project entered the final stretch on the road to the launch pad. Preparations generally went well, but last-minute problems kept cropping up one after another until they finally forced a delay to the launch of the mission from January 7, 2016, until March 14 of the same year.

pre-launch Pre-launch processing

Following their arrival to Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at the end of 2015, the Trace Gas Orbiter, TGO, and the Schiaparelli lander for the ExoMars-2016 mission began pre-launch processing for liftoff to the Red Planet during the second available launch window from March 14 to March 25, 2016.




The ExoMars-2016 mission lifted off on a Russian Proton rocket from Site 200 in Baikonur Cosmodrome on March 14, 2016, at 09:31 GMT. The Briz-M upper stage then performed four engine firings to send the probe toward Mars.


Early operations

Following its launch, the ExoMars-2016 mission successfully embarked on a journey to the Red Planet at a speed of 33,001 kilometers per hour. However, ground observations revealed that the Briz-M rocket stage likely disintegrated after successfully sending the probe on its path to Mars.


Flight to Mars

On March 17, 2016, the "Launch and Early Orbit Phase" of the ExoMars-2016 mission was declared completed. During the next phase, lasting until April 24, all systems onboard TGO, including the power, communications, startrackers, and guidance and navigation, were to be tested and commissioned by mission control.

Deep-space maneuver

On July 28, 2016, half way between Earth and Mars, the Trace Gas Orbiter, TGO, fired its 424-newton main engine for 52 minutes, changing the probe's velocity by 326 meters per second and resulting in slightly lower speed for the ExoMars-2016 arrival at the Red Planet.

arrival Arrival at Mars

After a seven-month journey between the Earth and Mars, the TGO orbiter and the Schiaparelli approached the Red Planet. On October 16, the orbiter released the lander to make a descent and soft landing on the planet's surface three days later. Almost simultaneously, the TGO spacecraft entered orbit around Mars for a multi-year mission.


Mars landing of EDM Schiaparelli

On October 19, 2016, exactly at the time when its mother ship was entering orbit around Mars, the 577-kilogram Schiaparelli lander attempted a six-minute descent onto the Martian surface, however something went wrong around the time when the main parachute of the lander was jettisoned and soft-landing engines fired for the first three or four seconds.


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Origin of the ExoMars rover

In 1999, a group of scientists issued a so-called Red Book report, which urged the European Space Agency, ESA, to send a mobile life-searching lab to Mars. Within two years, ESA's Aurora Exploration Program included planning for an Exobiology Multiuser Facility, EMF, which by 2002 was given much the better-sounding name of ExoMars.


Status of the ExoMars rover mission in 2014

The Russian-European flagship ExoMars mission will likely miss its 2018 launch window to the Red Planet, sources familiar with the program said. A combination of technical and financial problems will force developers to wait until 2020, sources said at the time.


Status of the ExoMars rover mission in 2017

At the end of January 2017, a structural mockup of the cruise stage (officially known as ExoMars Carrier Module), which will guide the ExoMars-2020 mission between Earth and Mars, arrived at NPO Lavochkin, the project's main contractor in Russia.


Status of the ExoMars rover mission in 2019 (INSIDER CONTENT)

Russian and European specialists are racing against a biennial deadline next year for the blastoff of the life-searching ExoMars rover to the Red Planet, as accumulating problems and delays increasingly threaten the already tight schedule.


Preparing ExoMars launch campaign (INSIDER CONTENT)

During ExoMars-2020 mission, the Proton rocket will have to ascent along a different trajectory than the standard path the vehicle had been using in all of its missions since 2013. As a result, the spacecraft will enter an initial parking orbit with a higher inclination than the one used during the departure of ExoMars-2016. This is only one of several aspects of the historic launch to be resolved.

parachute What parachute failure means for ExoMars? (INSIDER CONTENT)

On June 28, 2019, the European Space Agency, ESA, finally admitted a problem had occured during the high-altitude drop tests of the critical parachute system for the ExoMars-2020 mission a month earlier. However, what the agency did not say is that it only has limited windows left to repeat the tests and that the contractor who had produced the damaged parachute had financial problems.


2020: ExoMars postponed to 2022 (INSIDER CONTENT)

On March 12, 2020, Roskosmos and ESA announced the postponement of the the ExoMars rover launch for two years due to a number of technical issues which could not be resolved in time for launch in July 2020. The next launch window to Mars will be opened from August to October 2022, resulting in the arrival of the spacecraft at Mars between April and July 2023.


2021: Now or never for ExoMars (INSIDER CONTENT)

The two-year delay of the ExoMars launch from 2020 to 2022 seemingly gave the beleaguered project plenty of time to tidy up all the lose ends and prepare for the launch campaign in 2022 with comfortable time reserves. However, around a year ahead of the planned liftoff of the life-searching rover on Sept. 20, 2022, the ExoMars project managers still had a plenty of things to worry about and, this time, no fall-back opportunity.


2022: ExoMars falls victim of Putin's war (INSIDER CONTENT)

Perhaps the largest and most immediate loss for space exploration resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine was the European-Russian ExoMars project. Despite some open technical issues, the mission was racing toward launch in 2022, until the catastrophic day of February 24.

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Last update: December 15, 2023

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