Stevenage rover to have vital role bringing Mars soil to Earth for first time

Drawing of the Mars Sample Fetch Rover. Picture: Airbus

Drawing of the Mars Sample Fetch Rover. Picture: Airbus - Credit: Archant

Stevenage-based Airbus Defence and Space has won a £4 million contract to design a rover critical to bringing soil from Mars to Earth for the first time.

The European Space Agency project will see the multinational Gunnels Wood Road firm design a Sample Fetch Rover, which will launch for Mars in 2026.

It will retrieve 36 pen-sized sample tubes left on the red planet’s surface by NASA’s Mars2020 rover, then load them into a basketball-sized container within a vehicle that will launch into orbit around Mars. An ESA orbiter will capture this and bring it back to Earth by 2030.

Science minister Sam Gyimah said: “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. Winning this contract builds on the UK’s world-renowned expertise in space and robotics, which the government is supporting through the UK Space Agency and the major investments in our modern Industrial Strategy.

“One rover bound for Mars in 2020 is already under construction by Airbus in Stevenage, and the knowledge and expertise honed there will now be applied to designing this new mission, which aims to safely deliver – for the first time – material to Earth from another planet.”

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NASA and the ESA signed a letter of intent in April to pursue a Mars sample return mission. The plan is for the samples to land in the United States, ahead of study by scientists from around the globe.

Sample Fetch Rover is part of the ESA-NASA proposed Mars Sample Return mission that is looking to be approved at the 2019 ESA council.

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Sample Fetch Rover project manager Ben Boyes said: “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.”

ESA exploration director David Parker added: “This is very much due to the strong willingness and continuous support of ESA member states to position Europe as a key player in the international exploration of Mars.

“I am very much looking forward to see the first blueprints of the Mars Sample Return Fetch Rover soon.”

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