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Coronavirus grounds ExoMars rover as fear of contamination delays mission again

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Mar 15, 2020, 8:29 PM EDT (Updated)

Fear of coronavirus might be keeping you in your basement, but ESA and Roscosmos apparently think their ExoMars rover could also catch the plague.

You know the pandemic has nearly reached new levels of concern when even a spacecraft is being threatened by infection. Scientists are nervous that microbes could end up hitching a ride on ExoMars, and we could actually end up mistaking them for life on the seemingly dead Red Planet. Now the launch has been pushed back to 2022.

"We have made a difficult but well-weighed decision to postpone the launch to 2022,” said Roscosmos Director General Dimitry Rogozin.

Fear of the rover getting contaminated with coronavirus and the even greater fear of humans catching the rampant disease while meeting up to discuss further ExoMars plans has effectively stalled takeoff for another two years — at least. This is hardly the first delay for this spacecraft. More like the sixth.

ExoMars exists to find out whether life ever spawned on Mars. That might be kind of difficult if some Earth virus that has been spreading faster than you can say "World War Z" ends up crawling all over the otherwise barren red dust. We’ve already messed up and dumped tardigrades on the Moon. Not to mention false alarms and sensationalistic headlines about life on Mars.

As if coronavirus weren't enough, Rogozin and ESA head Jan Wörner agreed that ExoMars could use another round of tests on its hardware and software. It is equipped with a drill to get into the Red Planet’s subsurface (where Opportunity is struggling so much now), and a life-seeking mini-lab, kept in a sterile zone. No Earth microbes allowed.

"We want to make ourselves 100% sure of a successful mission. We cannot allow ourselves any margin of error. More verification activities will ensure a safe trip and the best scientific results on Mars,” said Wörner.

Maybe when we all emerge from our underground bunkers, we’ll finally see ExoMars take off.

(via ESA)


This story presents some humorous responses to coronavirus, but COVID-19 is very real! Please exercise caution out there: Wash those hands, keep them away from your face, and practice social distancing. For extensive information on how to keep you and your loved ones safe, check out the CDC’s coronavirus website.

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