Europe and Russia delay ExoMars rover project to 2020
As expected, the European and Russian space agencies have delayed their next mission to Mars from 2018 to 2020. It is a decision that has been well telegraphed in recent months, with both agency officials and industry chiefs expressing their doubts that all the hardware could be made ready in time.
The aim of the mission is to land a rover on the Red Planet. Capable of drilling up to 2m below the surface, it would search for signs of past or present life. It is the second part of the so-called ExoMars programme. The first part - a satellite to study the atmosphere of the planet - was launched successfully in March and should arrive in October.
But the surface robot will now follow four years behind, instead of two (planetary alignment dictates that the most efficient launch opportunities become available at 26-month intervals).
The announcement of the launch slip was issued by the European Space Agency (Esa) on Monday. Russian engineers have been struggling for a while to keep their design for the vehicle's landing mechanism on the 2018 timeline, and in Europe, too, some components and instruments were considered to have very little margin in their development schedule.
A "tiger team" set up by Esa and the Russian space agency (Roscosmos), and which included European and Russian industries, could find no solutions to recover lost time.
Rolf de Groot is head of Esa's Robotic Exploration Coordination Office. He told BBC News: "It is not only the components of the spacecraft; it's several of the instruments.
"What we have been doing lately is seeing if we could shorten the assembly, integration and testing (AIT) phase to something that would be acceptable from a risk point of view, but still make the 2018 launch.
"Very recently, we have concluded that this is not possible without adding a large amount of additional risk to an already risky mission. So, we decided the only responsible thing to do was move to the 2020 launch date."