ESA Exomars robot. AOES medialab M.Thiebaut
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Landing on Mars is no easy feat. Only the United States has so far managed to successfully set down robots that operated for more than a few seconds on the Martian surface. But Russia and the European Space Agency (ESA) are hoping to buck the trend.

During a meeting last week, ESA’s member states agreed to cough up $464 million to try to land the ExoMars rover on the red planet in 2021. ExoMars is a joint mission with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. The rover would launch in 2020.

The decision to move forward with the rover landing is somewhat surprising, given ExoMars’ recent failure to land a test spacecraft on Mars. Because of a glitch, the Schiparelli lander sensed it was closer to the ground than it really was, so it cut the strings on its parachute too early. After the resulting 3.7-kilometer drop, the poor lander ended up as nothing but a black scorch mark on the red surface.

To safely land the rover on Mars, the ExoMars team is hoping to learn from this year’s failure. If successful, the rover will be a first for both ESA and Russia.

The rover will be equipped with a two-meter drill and onboard laboratory to search for signs of Martian life, which may have once thrived below the surface, where it would be protected from the red planet’s harsh radiation. By comparison, NASA’s Curiosity rover can only drill down to about 5 centimeters.

Popular Science has reached out to the ExoMars team to determine why they’re rushing ahead with this important mission. We’ll update this post if we hear back. Part of the reason may be that the mission was already delayed from its original 2018 launch date—an expensive setback for the $1 billion program.

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