The European Space Agency (ESA) awarded a USD 5.2 Million contract to Airbus, an aerospace company known mostly for their commercial airplanes, to design a Mars rover to specifically collect and bring Martian soil samples to Earth. The team leading this project is located at the Airbus site in Stevenage, England, where Airbus is already constructing the ExoMars, a rover scheduled to launch in 2021 by the ESA.
NASA and ESA signed an agreement to collaborate on bringing Martian soil samples back to Earth. The rover designed to fetch the soil samples is planned to launch in 2026, after NASA’s Mars 2020 rover is deployed. NASA will send Mars 2020 to search for materials, then drill and collect them and prepare 36 pen-sized metal canisters of various samples to be dropped at different locations. The “fetch” rover will then be able to detect the canisters and then autonomously drive to the location, pick them up with a robotic arm and then store them in its storage compartment. The rover will potentially take 150 days to collect all the samples, after which it must find and transfer the samples to a rocket which will then rendezvous with an orbiter to bring the samples back to Earth.
The head of the feasibility team at Airbus, Ben Boyes, described the rover, “it will be a relatively small rover — about 130kg; but the requirements are very demanding. The vehicle will have to cover large distances using a high degree of autonomy, planning its own path ahead day after day."
Why is this important? Some scientists say the biggest questions about Mars can only be answered by studying rock and soil samples brought back to Earth. Sam Gyimah, the British Science Minister applauded the mission, saying, “this remarkable new project, which will see samples brought back from Mars to Earth for the first time ever, demonstrates Britain's world-leading scientific and engineering innovation.”