(Interview with Mars-expert Jorge Vago for Marssociety.org)
‘Launching in 2020 had a big risk: we had not finished testing, we might have lost the mission’
On 12 March 2020, ESA and Roscosmos announced the postponement of the launch of the ExoMars rover ‘Rosalind Franklin’ to 2022. This meant, again, having to wait another two years, until Earth and Mars would again be in a favourable orbital position. The primary goal of the ExoMars mission is to determine if there has ever been life on Mars, and to better understand the history of water on the planet. The delay of the launch was a big disappointment for all the global fans of space flight and Mars missions, but we can only imagine how devastating it must have been for the people who work so hard on this project. Why was it necessary? Was it caused by the coronacrisis that hit our world? I asked dr. Jorge L. Vago, Project Scientist at ESA’s ExoMars, who works on this project since 2002.
‘In all fairness,’ he says, ‘we knew it would be very difficult to make it. Although the spacecraft was complete, we had run out of sufficient time to test and debug the software and avionics. This was tough for all of us. I work already 20 years on ExoMars, so you can imagine how much I want this mission to go. However, we had a project meeting and all agreed on the same conclusion: Precisely because we have put so much effort, and also because the search for signs of life is such an interesting objective, it was fundamental to ensure that the mission would succeed. Another two years would give us the time to finish things well. Conversely, launching in 2020 without having completed the systems verification implied taking a big risk. We might lose the mission.’ And of course, we all understand, that is the last thing anyone wants to happen.
Jorge Vago explains: ‘A landed rover mission is so much more complicated than a satellite. We need avionics and software for launch, for cruise, for entry, descent and landing, for rover egress and navigation. There are so many permutations and operations that have to be checked.’
Not only the complexity of the work was very demanding, also the time and effort the team members had to put in it.
‘The teams had been working on triple shift, so 24-hours-a-day, seven days a week, since March 2019,’ says Vago. ‘Unfortunately, it was not enough. There was a lot of progress, but we could see that due to unforeseen little issues – as we have on all missions – we were falling back 25 days of schedule per every 100 days of progress. In other words, it would take us 125 days to complete what we had budgeted 100 days for. Around February 2020, we realised we would not make it.’
Time for a well-deserved rest for the teams? No, with ExoMars’ troubled history, this project team has had to learn to adapt and keep on going. Jorge Vago: ‘We decided we would forge on: advance all the work as much as possible to ensure we could finish everything within this year, while replanning for the 2022 launch and trajectory. But then… the coronavirus hit.’
By now almost everyone around the world knows how much the coronavirus has impacted our lives, jobs and businesses. Jorge Vago sketches what the measures meant for the European ExoMars project.
‘The mission’s prime contractor is TAS-I, located in Torino (ITA). The spacecraft was in Cannes (FR) for final tests. But the Italian and Russian engineers could no longer travel to France. We had to see what it was that we could do now, and what would have to be postponed. We decided to ship the rover back to Torino. At this moment TAS-I is closed and everyone is working from home, so the rover is sleeping in its transport container, with its keep-alive system on, waiting to be unpacked and brought into the clean room.’ He explains his new daily routine: ‘Work goes on. By email. We are planning how and when to perform the remaining activities, which include corrections and repairs to some elements that we will now have the time to carry out.’ Vago gives some examples: ‘We need to reinforce the hinges in the rover’s solar panels, that had experienced some problems. We also want to do a vacuum bakeout of the rover to reduce the organic molecule background and make sure we can keep it chemically clean for its mission. The big question is when we will be able to go back into the clean rooms to work on the spacecraft. Hopefully in a couple of months.’
It is clear that space projects like ExoMars need highly motivated scientists, engineers and technicians who can deal with disappointments. And also, leaders who can make hard decisions which may go against what we would want to happen now, instead of in 2022: send the Rosalind Franklin to Mars and search for signs of life.
Bertina Mulder, 26 March 2020