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ESA decided to cancel cooperation with Roscosmos on ExoMars just days after the invasion of the Ukraine, and weeks before the Rosalind Franklin rover was due to ship to Russia for launch. (credit: ESA)

Secrets of ExoMars

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When we think of the secrets of Mars, we think of life there, possibly hidden below its surface. A European-Russian rover, ExoMars, was built to go there. It was due to land on June 10, 2023, and might even have found signs of life there by now. Instead, its secrets remain locked up—but on Earth.

The ExoMars rover, called Rosalind Franklin after the famous British scientist, never got to its launch pad, because it was cancelled as a Russian-European mission within 96 hours of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. At that time, it was within weeks of being shipped to Moscow on its Russian lander, Kazachok, for transport to Baikonur for Proton launch on September 20, 2022.

The cancellation was a key moment, a watershed decision for the European Space Agency. It is the business of historians and journalists to try find out more about such a landmark decision.

Readers will have their own view on the merits of the cancellation of ExoMars, but that is not the point at issue. ExoMars was a flagship project of both Europe and Russia, a substantial multi- billion-euro investment that dated to 2011. Thousands of scientists, engineers, and managers worked on the project in Turin, Toulouse, Cannes, Paris, and particularly in Stevenage, Britain, where Rosalind Franklin was constructed.

Within hours of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Thursday, February 24, 2022, the European Space Agency (ESA) convened meetings with its 22 national delegations (online or in person, we don’t know) and by Monday morning February 28, the project was cancelled, a decision formally confirmed later. Whatever its merits, this was an astonishingly fast—96 hours—decision for a project 12 years in development. Moreover, the decision was taken over a weekend, which meant that the lights must have burned late in the government departments of the 22 member states over that time.

Why the hurry? It was not as if Rosalind Franklin was already in its cargo plane and on the runway. By contrast, in the United States, discussions between NASA and the Congress over many weeks led to a consensus that cooperation with Russia on the International Space Station should continue unaffected, a vastly different decision. The issue here, again, is not the merit of the decision, but the process.

Signing of the original ESA-Roscosmos agreement on ExoMars. (credit: ESA)

The cancellation was a key moment, a watershed decision for the European Space Agency. It is the business of historians and journalists to try find out more about such a landmark decision: the why, the circumstances, the arguments, the options considered. Who, or which country, proposed the cancellation? Was it the director general, or a country or a group of countries? Who were the protagonists—in favor, against, or neutral? The arguments for and against? The potential scientific losses and gains? The costs of continuing or not? How were these weighed? And why the hurry? What are the key documents that informed ESA and the national delegations, steering it to the decision taken?

ESA is a notoriously secretive organization. ESA managers contacted by this writer explained how it is an information black hole from which no unpublished information may escape. ESA, when it meets to take decisions, is comprised of the 22 national delegations, or representatives of the member states, typically drawn from the government department responsible for space affairs or its space agency or agency that deals with space exploration. These representatives are normally civil or public servants. The director general of ESA, currently Josef Aschbacher, attends and some secretarial officials sit in to take minutes and notes. None may speak about the meeting afterwards, unless specifically instructed or authorized to do so and even then within strictly agreed limits.

In the case of this decision, no staff—even senior managerial staff working on the ExoMars project—were asked in advance for their views on a potential cancellation. The first they knew about it was what they read in the papers, or more likely on the Internet, the next week. Requests by this writer for further ESA information on the decision were initially acknowledged, but then ignored.

Some European ESA member states have what is called Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation. Granted the ESA information black hole, this offered an alternate, national route to locate, identify, and hopefully access the documentation of the decision-making in late February 2022. This writer applied for the relevant documentation under the Irish Freedom of Information Act, 2014.

It emerged that the possible cancellation of ExoMars was considered at a hitherto-unknown, ultra-secret “restricted” meeting of the ESA Council three months earlier, flagged as dealing with “matters of particular confidentiality.”

Some interesting details emerged. First, the impression that this was a time of intense decision-making was confirmed. No less than 20 documents were identified as contributing to the cancellation decision, comprising correspondence, draft statements, papers, briefs, including “non-papers,” an ingenious European device to draft statements that could then be disowned. One document was headed “Russian activities,” another “sanctions and export controls,” and one was titled “security measures.”

Second, it emerged that the possible cancellation of ExoMars was considered at a hitherto-unknown, ultra-secret “restricted” meeting of the ESA Council three months earlier, flagged as dealing with “matters of particular confidentiality.” This was interesting, because nowhere until February 24 had ESA flagged such a discussion: it was full steam ahead to get Rosalind Franklin on the plane on time to Moscow. Not even a hint. Although Europeans were well aware of tensions over Ukraine, the Russian invasion on February 24 was a great, sudden shock all, reflected in the statements of their governments. What did ESA know in December that it did not tell us or its own program managers?

That’s the good news. Now the bad. All the documentation was refused outright on first request, on internal review and then on appeal to the Irish government’s Information Commissioner. Not as much as a single word of even redacted information was released, nor even public domain information contained therein. Although under guidance by his office there is an obligation to thoroughly consider the “public interest” (in favor of release) and the potential “adverse effect” (of release) or not, the Commissioner did not do so, relying instead on a single section of the legislation which considered information from international organizations “confidential.”

This might make it an open-and-shut case (shut in this instance) but it is not that simple. First, confidentiality is not an absolute, blanket concept and the guidance cited numerous circumstances whereby international information can be made available. Logically, “confidentiality” would rule out any information concerning foreign affairs, but this has not been the case and writers and journalists have successfully used the legislation to obtain documents from the Department of Foreign Affairs. Second, the Commissioner applied his ruling of denial not only to ESA-provenance communications and information, including that already in the public domain, but to all Irish governmental and departmental documentation that had any relationship with the decision, however remote. The Commissioner put himself in the position of classifying as “ESA secrets” documents that ESA itself probably never saw and of which it was most likely unaware, an extraordinarily wide cordon sanitaire. The decision had all the appearances of raison d’état and could only encourage idle speculation along the lines of, “What were they hiding?”

Younger readers should stick around to see if the ESA or Irish documents are, as the decades pass, ever released in archives. But until then, we will not know what happened over February 24–28, 2022.

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