Airbus in Stevenage wins European Space Agency contract to build rover to retrieve samples from Mars

Sample Fetch Rover and transfer module. Picture courtesy of Airbus Defence and Space

Sample Fetch Rover and transfer module. Picture courtesy of Airbus Defence and Space - Credit: Archant

Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage has won a contract from the European Space Agency to create a rover that will bring rock samples back from the surface of Mars.

The Sample Fetch Rover will be built on the Gunnels Wood Road site as part of Mars Sample Return - a joint ESA and NASA campaign to return samples from the Red Planet.

NASA’s 2020 Mars rover mission Perseverance will collect Martian soils and rock samples and leave them on the surface in small metal tubes.

In 2026 NASA will launch an ESA rover to Mars to collect these tubes. Landing in 2028, the rover will travel an average of 200 metres a day for six months, to find and pick up the samples.

It will collect up to 36 tubes, carry them back to the lander and place them in a Mars Ascent Vehicle which will launch them into orbit around Mars.

Another spacecraft developed by ESA - the Earth Return Orbiter - will collect the samples from Martian orbit and return them to Earth.

ESA has enlisted Airbus in Stevenage to lead the Sample Fetch Rover project, following the Stevenage site’s completion of the ESA ExoMars rover, which is due to launch in the summer of 2022 with the purpose of drilling for signs of life on Mars.

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Airbus has already developed the algorithms the Sample Fetch Rover will use to to spot the tubes on the Martian surface, and a pool of European industries are designing a robotic arm with a grasping unit to pick up the tubes.

Unlike the ExoMars rover, which has six wheels, the Sample Fetch Rover will only have four wheels to better cope with the terrain at the selected landing site, and to ensure the speed and performance required to reach and return the samples in due time to the lander.

The samples are due to land back on Earth in 2031.

Graham Turnock, the UK Space Agency’s chief executive, said: “This is an exciting opportunity for the UK space sector to play a leading role in humanity’s efforts to return the first samples from Mars. Airbus has a rich heritage of designing challenging space missions in the UK.”

He added: “We are working hard to develop a new National Space Strategy to bring long-term strategic and commercial benefits to the UK, while strengthening our international partnerships through ESA and beyond.”