ESA and Thales Alenia Space have signed a contract that puts the ExoMars 2020 mission on track to place a rover on the Red Planet. Scheduled to launch in 2020, the signing of a contract authorizes the final development, construction, and testing of the European components of the lander/rover, including the parachute, radar, inertial measurement unit, UHF radio elements, and the computer and software.

The joint mission staged by ESA and Roscosmos was cast into doubt earlier this year when the ExoMars 2016 Schiaparelli lander, which was designed to test the technology for the 2020 mission, crashed on the surface of Mars due to a suspected sensor error. Another stumbling block was a €400 million (US$425 million) budget shortfall in November that was filled by an EU rescue package. It's already suffered a two year delay due to problems at Roscosmos.

The purpose of the ExoMars missions to act as a technology demonstration for future deep space missions with an emphasis on Russian-European cooperation. The ExoMars 2020 mission will use a lander/rover for surface exploration of the Martian equatorial region, where it will seek signs of present or past life. It consists of a lander, a Russian descent module, and a carrier module to transport it to Mars.

The ExoMars 2020 signing ceremony took place on December 16, 2016 in the Ottagona hall at the Roman Museum of the Baths of Diocletian during the opening of an exhibition on Mars organized by the Italian space agency(Credit: ESA)

ExoMars 2016 is made up of the failed Schiaparelli lander and the Trace Gas Orbiter currently circling Mars, which is the orbital component that arrived at the Red Planet on October 19 this year. It's studying the atmosphere of Mars with a special emphasis on finding traces of methane – a key indicator of biological activity. Its other job is to act as a communications relay for the ExoMars 2020 rover, as well as other Mars surface missions.

The Trace Gas Orbiter will act as a communications relay for the Euro-Russian rover(Credit: ESA)

ESA says the structural models of the space carrier and surface rover will be ready by February of next year. The Oxia Planum region is regarded as the probable landing site after ExoMars leaves Earth in July 2020, though this has yet to be formally determined.

"ExoMars is a cornerstone of ESA's exploration program," says David Parker, ESA's Director of Human Spaceflight and Robotic Exploration. "Using its miniaturized life-search laboratory and advanced robotic technology, the mission will explore the Red Planet in search of new evidence to answer questions that have long fascinated humanity. Following the renewed support demonstrated by ESA member states in the recent Ministerial Council, this new contract allows us to complete the flight models of the European elements and keeps us on track for a July 2020 launch."

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