A scheduled joint European-Russia launch of a planetary rover to Mars this summer has been scrubbed, for now. The European Space Agency and Russia's Roscosmos space agency said the ExoMars mission, planned for July, won't happen now until at least the latter part of 2022.

Both space agencies acknowledged items like the rover's parachutes and landing and decent modules were going through final testing, but in announcing the delay, officials said concerns over the coronavirus pandemic were a factor.

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

Rogozin said agencies needed to "maximise the robustness of all ExoMars systems," but also that European experts involved in the project had no ability to travel to "partner industries" because of the "exacerbation of the epidemiological situation in Europe."

The space agencies also said further tests to the spacecraft's hardware and software were needed before a mission launch.

"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," Jan Wörner, the ESA director general said.

The ExoMars' main task is to search for evidence of whether life has ever existed on Mars and to gain a better understanding of the history of water on the Red Planet.

The rover will include a drill and what is described as a "miniature life-search laboratory."

Rovers have landed on Mars before, including NASA's Opportunity, which roamed the planet for more than 14 years beginning in 2004.

But the two space agencies say the mission is new in that will search for life up to 2 meters below the surface of Mars, "where biological signatures of life may be uniquely well preserved."

The space agencies are predicting the next launch period will be between August and October of 2022. They cite "celestial mechanics" providing a narrow launch window of about 10 days every two years where Mars can be reached from Earth.

The ExoMars mission also includes the Trace Gas Orbiter, which launched in 2016 and is still orbiting Mars. It's planned to relay information from the rover on the surface of Mars with scientists on Earth.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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