The European Space Agency (ESA) has issued contracts for technology proposals to build a Mars rover to collect soil samples, and a return orbiter craft to bring them safely home.
Airbus has won the initial contracts to design two prototype vehicles, Sample Fetch Rover and Earth Return Orbiter, which will be designed and developed at its facilities in Stevenage, England.
The Sample Fetch Rover will retrieve 36 sample tubes of Martian soil and rock left behind by the 2020 Mars rover, a mission due to launch in July 2020. While the 2020 rover design is based on Curiosity, it will collect and deposit samples for the Fetch Rover to retrieve and bring back to Earth, rather than conduct onboard analysis as Curiosity does.
Sample Fetch Rover will launch in 2026, tasked with transporting the samples loading them into a basketball-sized container inside the ESA’s Mars Ascent Vehicle, which will then launch from the Martian surface to loft the samples into orbit.
The third component of the mission is the Earth Return Orbiter, which will capture the sample container, seal it within a biocontainment system, and return the samples to Earth.
Simultaneously, ESA’s ExoMars rover will be drilling below the Martian surface to search for evidence of life, and the ExoMars orbiter currently sampling Mars’ atmosphere will form a crucial part of the communications infrastructure for the Sample Return mission, for which it will act as a relay satellite.
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David Parker, Director of Human and Robotic Exploration at ESA, highlighted the significance of the proposed mission.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
It is estimated that it could take up to 150 days for the fetch rover to retrieve all the canisters that the 2020 rover leaves behind, before it locates the rocket it landed with, and films the Earth Return Orbiter’s takeoff.
If all goes according to plan, the first samples of Martian soil on Earth before the end of the next decade — and the first footage of a liftoff from Mars.
Below is a 360-degree rendering of the ExoMars rover, which will be searching for life on subterranean Mars while the Fetch Rover is collecting the 2020 samples.