In planetary exploration circles, Mars has quite a bad reputation. The Red Planet has a habit of eating spacecraft sent there to explore it, to the degree that nearly half of the missions we’ve thrown at it have failed in one way or another. The “Mars Curse” manifests itself most spectacularly when landers fail to negotiate the terminal descent and new billion-dollar craters appear on the Martian regolith, while some missions meet their doom en route to the planet, and an unlucky few have even blown up on the launchpad.
But the latest example of the Mars Curse, the recent cancellation of the second half of the ExoMars mission, represents a new and depressing failure mode: war — specifically the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The international outrage over the aggression resulted in economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation of Russia, which retaliated by ending its partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA), depriving the mission of its launch vehicle and dooming the mission that would have landed the rover Rosalind Franklin on Oxia Planum near the Martian Equator in 2023.
While there’s still a chance that administrators and diplomats will work things out, chances are slim that it will be in time for the narrow launch window that the mission was shooting for in September of 2022. That means the Rosalind Franklin, along with all the other flight hardware that was nearly ready to launch, will have to be put in storage at least until the next launch window opens in 2024. That begs the question: how does one put a complex spacecraft into storage? And could such mothballing have unintended consequences for the mission when it eventually does fly?