The second leg of ExoMars mission has been postponed until 2020 as a result of issues with "industrial activities," confirms European Space Agency (ESA).
The ExoMars mission is a joint project between ESA and Russia's space agency Roscosmos whose objective is to look for signs of past and present life on Mars.
The first part of the series, a Proton rocket from Russia, had already lifted off last March 2016 in Baikonur in Kazakhstan, the facility that's currently being leased by Russia for its space program. It is expected to set foot on the red planet by the fourth quarter of the same year.
A trace gas orbiter designed by ESA will analyze the atmosphere of the planet, including methane gas, which has already been detected on Mars and is believed to be one of the main indicators of life on the planet.
The second stage, which was initially scheduled for launch in 2018, will introduce a 300-kilogram rover and an 828-kilogram surface platform to be delivered via a descent module built by Russia with contributions by ESA.
Once the rover gets into the surface, it will be the first to not only move on the planet's surface but also dig as deep as 2 meters into the ground in order to collect samples for analysis. The platform will then complement the work of the rover by studying the rest of the environment of the planet including the climate and radiation for roughly 365 days.
All these would have to wait until July 2020, a decision jointly made in Moscow based on the final report of the Tiger Team, a group assigned to determine solutions to recover schedule delays.
"Having assessed the possible ways to ensure successful mission implementation, the JESB [Joint ExoMars Steering Board] concluded that, taking into account the delays in European and Russian industrial activities and deliveries of the scientific payload, a launch in 2020 would be the best solution," said the ESA.
While the delay will ensure all the necessary pieces of equipment are present and all the cautionary steps are undertaken, it wouldn't be without any consequence such as significant additional costs.
"We are trying to minimize them by building the spacecraft as quickly as possible so as not to stretch all the [program development elements] over two years and two months, which would mean maximum extra costs," said Rolf de Groot of ESA.
The team is also negotiating prices with contractors like Airbus Defence and Space, which is creating the rover.