Rosalind Franklin Rover one step closer to Mars

A spacecraft built using University of Leicester expertise is one step closer to its mission on the surface of Mars following a successful series of high-altitude tests.

The UK-built Rosalind Franklin Rover is part of the joint European Space Agency (ESA)/Roscosmos ExoMars mission, due to be launched in 2022 to search the Red Planet for signs of ancient life.

Now, after several weeks of delays due to bad weather, the latest tests to determine the Rover’s new-and-improved parachutes’ fitness for use in the harsh conditions of Mars saw the descent vehicle dropped from a stratospheric balloon at an altitude of about 29 kilometres above Sweden.

The 15 metre-wide first stage main parachute performed flawlessly at supersonic speeds, while the 35 metre-wide second stage parachute – which will be the largest parachute used for a Mars landing to date – experienced minor damage, but decelerated the mock-up of the landing platform as expected.

University of Leicester scientists and experts in the School of Physics and Astronomy and at Space Park Leicester have played a key role in the design of the ExoMars mission and its instruments.

Professor John Bridges is part of the project team tasked with selecting the Rover’s landing site, more than 350 million km away from Earth, and has worked on the PanCam high-resolution 3D camera which will serve as the spacecraft’s ‘eyes’ on the Martian surface.

Dr Ian Hutchinson, Dr Melissa McHugh and Dr Hannah Lerman have developed Raman spectroscopy techniques which will use laser light to identify particular minerals and organic compounds in the search for life.

Professor Bridges said: “Space Agencies across the world – including NASA, China, ESA, UAE, India – are working hard to explore Mars, and this is an important step for Europe in the process of successfully exploring the Red Planet, with Leicester involvement.”

Chris Castelli, director of programmes at the UK Space Agency, said: “The Rosalind Franklin Rover showcases some of the best of the UK’s space sector and will be Europe’s first planetary rover.

“It’s fantastic that this flagship mission is now one step closer to launching to the Red Planet to lead the search for signs of life.”

Landing safely on Mars is a notoriously difficult task, with high-altitude testing an essential part of ensuring a successful mission.

Once the module gets close to its destination, it will enter a six-minute landing sequence.

Drag from the atmosphere will slow it from 20,000 km per hour to around 1,600 km per hour. The first parachute will then be deployed, followed 20 seconds later by the second.

When the vehicle reaches around a kilometre above the surface, an engine will start to slow the descent even further to allow for a safe touchdown.

School children are invited to learn more about the science behind the ExoMars mission, and meet the Leicester team, at a series of virtual events as part of The Royal Society’s Summer Science festival.

The University of Leicester has also produced a number of interactive learning resources and quizzes for students aged between 7 and 18.

Visit the Exploring Mars webpages at for more details.