Airbus is to design a robot that can be sent to Mars to collect soil samples before being blasted back to space for further analysis on Earth.
The European Space Agency (ESA) issued the large engineering firm with contracts to design a ‘Sample Fetch Rover’ and an ‘Earth Return Orbiter’.
The Mars mission is expected to take place before the end of the next decade and Nasa and ESA signed a letter of intent in April 2018 to pursue a ‘Mars Sample Return’ mission.
In May, Nasa announced plans to deliver a helicopter drone to the Red Planet in 2020, where it will assist with exploring areas of the planet that the next rover cannot reach.
After launching to Mars in 2026, the Mars Sample Fetch Rover will retrieve Mars samples left by the Mars 2020 rover.
That rover will leave 36 pen-sized sample tubes on the Martian surface, ready to be collected later.
The Sample Fetch Rover will pick up the sample tubes, carry them back and load them into a container within the waiting ‘Mars Ascent Vehicle’, which will then launch from the surface and put the sample container into orbit around Mars.
As a third part of the mission, ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter, will capture the basketball-sized sample container orbiting Mars, seal it within a biocontainment system and bring the samples back to Earth.
The samples will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and land in the USA before the end of the next decade. Scientists from around the world will then be able to study the samples using the latest laboratory equipment and analysis techniques.
Airbus project manager Patrick Lelong, who is working on the Earth Return Orbiter, said: “Our long experience in complex scientific exploration missions such as Rosetta, BepiColombo and Mars Express will be a great asset for this study. The mission is technologically very challenging, but the prospect of seeing a sample of Mars returning to Earth is very exciting.”
Ben Boyes, Airbus project manager for the Sample Fetch Rover study, said: “With the combined expertise of ESA and NASA, this landmark mission is ambitious and technologically very advanced, with two rovers interacting together on Mars for the first time. A double first of launching from the planet’s surface and the in-orbit transfer of the samples means it will be possible for the first time to directly study Mars soil in laboratories on Earth.”
David Parker, director of human and robotic exploration at ESA, said: “Bringing samples back from Mars is essential in more than one way. Firstly, to understand why Mars – although it is the planet that is most similar to Earth – took a very different evolutionary path than Earth and secondly to fully comprehend the Martian environment in order to allow humans to one day work and live on the Red Planet.
“I am very pleased that with these two studies now being commissioned and in combination with other studies conducted elsewhere in Europe we make another important step to explore Mars.”
In June, hazy pictures of the surface of Mars were beamed back from the Curiosity Rover, taken just before a dust storm that enveloped vast swathes of the planet.