UK-built Mars rover saved from museum retirement

The UK, along with Italy, has a lot invested in Rosalind Franklin. And more will be needed

The UK-built Mars rover, “Rosalind Franklin”, will not be placed behind glass for people to look at and wonder what it might be.

The completed robot will now head to the Red Planet thanks to a €360m (£310m) rescue package approved by European Space Agency member states.

Rosalind Franklin should have gone in September but was stranded on Earth when her Russian rocket tour was canceled because of the war in Ukraine.

The cash injection is a lifeline.

It will begin the design of a system to land the rover on Mars – replacing the previous Russian mechanism.

More money will be needed later to complete all the works, but Esa’s general director, Josef Aschbacher, said the project was back on track.

“I am happy to say that we have found a very positive way,” he told reporters, noting that at one point member states had considered placing the six-wheeled vehicle in a museum.

European engineers will now build a capsule to protect Rosalind Franklin from overheating as she screams into the Martian atmosphere to land. A parachute system and rocket-powered platform needed to make a slow, soft touchdown will also be prepared.

The financial agreement reached at the triennial meeting of the Esa Ministerial Council in Paris is expected to release the participation of the American space agency.

NASA has indicated that it would be willing to provide the launcher to send Rosalind Franklin on its way, as well as some new components for the robot, such as radioisotope heaters. These devices, designed to keep the rover warm in the harsh Martian climate, will replace the Russian units previously incorporated.

NASA was awaiting the outcome of discussions by European research ministers before making a firm commitment. This should be coming now after Wednesday’s announcement.

The Art of Truth Satellite

Artwork: Truths will work with other satellites to calibrate and validate their observations

Rosalind Franklin is a good example of the cost of the war in Ukraine. It is likely that there will be a final bill of around €700m for taxpayers in the Esa states to end European and Russian joint efforts in space. And the project has already cost over €1bn.

Italy and the UK will bear the brunt of the additional financial burden. Britain, which assembled the vehicle at Airbus in Stevenage, doesn’t want all its good work to go to waste.

In addition, the science that Rosalind Franklin will do is still considered very strong.

The robot will search for signs of life on Mars, and will carry a drill to try to find it up to 2m below the planet’s surface. If biology still exists, this is where researchers would expect to find it – underground.

“Rosalind Franklin is a huge project,” said UK Science Minister George Freeman.

“It’s a UK-built Mars rover. We now need to finalize the propulsion and landing system, and there are big supply chain opportunities for British companies in this regard.

“Think about it – we’ll be at the forefront of that signal coming back from Mars about the origins of life. You can’t get more exciting, exciting, and groundbreaking than that.”

Artwork: Aeolus

Artwork: Aeolus observations improve weather forecasting skill

The rescue package for Rosalind Franklin was one part of the overall Esa budget agreed by European research ministers of €16.9bn.

This figure, which covers the next three to five years, was not as high as requested (€18.5bn) but was considered admirable in today’s difficult economic circumstances.

“A goal is always very ambitious, and I think this budget sends a strong signal about Europe,” said Anna Christmann, the German government’s aerospace coordinator, who chaired the Paris meeting.

Other projects greenlit by the money include a large robotic lander to deliver cargo to astronauts on the Moon later in the decade. Closer to home, ministers agreed to put €640m into the European Union’s “secure connectivity” constellation. This is a network of satellites – which will eventually cost around €6bn – which will speed up communication around the globe.

The UK is not participating in this project as it is no longer a member of the EU. It focused its contributions (€1.8bn in total) on other sectors, particularly in Earth observation.

Britain will be the first to launch a satellite that will measure the total amount of light reflected from the Earth’s surface. Called Truths, its data will essentially serve as a calibration tool in the sky, making it possible to compare all other imaging spacecraft in high fidelity.

The UK will also lead the construction of a laser wind monitoring satellite called Aeolus-2. It is a follow-up to the revolutionary Aeolus-1 spacecraft and will be developed in partnership with Eumetsat, which manages Europe’s fleet of weather satellites.

“The Aeolus mission showed that one instrument can reduce errors in European forecasts by around 5% – an improvement that would require data from three other types of instruments,” said Phil Evans, director general of Eumetsat.

The Paris meeting ended with the announcement of five new recruits for the ESA astronaut corps. A fifth, former British Paralympic sprinter John McFall, will join a feasibility project to see if he himself can become a professional astronaut despite his disability.

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