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ESA will conduct a “fast-track industrial study” to look at options for launching the ExoMars rover after suspending plans to launch it on a Russian Proton rocket. Credit: ESA

TITUSVILLE, Fla. — The European Space Agency has formally halted plans to launch its ExoMars mission on a Russian rocket in September in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The ESA Council, at the conclusion of its latest meeting March 17, unanimously voted to suspend cooperation with Russia on the ExoMars mission, citing “the present impossibility of carrying out the ongoing cooperation with Roscosmos,” according to an ESA statement.

“We deeply deplore the human casualties and tragic consequences of the aggression towards Ukraine,” ESA said in the statement. “While recognizing the impact on scientific exploration of space, ESA is fully aligned with the sanctions imposed on Russia by its Member States.”

The council instructed ESA Director-General Josef Aschbacher to start a “fast-track industrial study” to look at alternatives for launching the mission, which will place the European-built Rosalind Franklin rover on Mars.

The announcement was all but inevitable after ESA announced Feb. 28 that it was “very unlikely” it would go forward with the late September launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan because of European sanctions imposed on Russia in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Russia was providing not just the launch but a landing platform called Kazachok that will deliver the rover to the Martian surface. The statement was silent on what will happen with Kazachok.

ESA’s decision means the launch of the rover will be delayed to at least 2024 and possibly later, depending on what launch arrangements the agency can make and whether it needs to find a replacement for Kazachok. The statement did not address the potential additional costs that the decision might mean for ExoMars and its effects on other ESA programs.

The statement also addressed Russia’s Feb. 26 decision to halt Soyuz launches from French Guiana and withdraw its personnel there in response to the European sanctions. That decision puts five European missions in limbo: two launches of Galileo navigation satellites, ESA’s Euclid space observatory and EarthCARE Earth science satellites, and a French reconnaissance satellite.

The ESA statement said that Aschbacher “has initiated an assessment on potential alternative launch services for these missions, which will include a review of the Ariane 6 first exploitation flights.” The first Ariane 6 launch, scheduled for no earlier than the second half of this year, is currently set to carry an assortment of small private and educational spacecraft and instruments, along with a mass simulator.


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