Airbus to lead next stage of Sample Fetch Rover development

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The European Space Agency has chosen Airbus to develop the next phase of Sample Fetch Rover, a four-wheeled vehicle that will collect samples from the surface of Mars.

Mars Sample Return is a joint NASA/ESA programme to return samples from the Red Planet. NASA’s 2020 Mars rover mission Perseverance (which is set for launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida between July 20 - August 11) 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.

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Due to land in 2028, the rover will then travel an average of 200 metres a day for six months to retrieve 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. The Earth Return Orbiter, a spacecraft developed by ESA with a Nasa payload, will collect the samples from Martian orbit and return them to Earth.

“It’s exciting for our Airbus team to have such a key involvement in the Mars Sample Return programme which is a major international collaboration to achieve a real world first in space exploration,” said Ben Boyes, Airbus Project Manager for Sample Fetch Rover.

Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage is leading the Sample Fetch Rover project, following the completion of the ESA ExoMars rover which is due to launch in 2022.  Phase A and subsequent B1 studies for the Sample Fetch Rover have been in progress at Airbus in Stevenage since July 2018.

Algorithms designed to spot the sample tubes have already been developed, and a dedicated robotic arm with a grasping unit to pick up the tubes is being designed with a pool of European industries.

Sample Fetch Rover and transfer module (Image: Airbus Defence & Space)

Unlike the ExoMars rover Rosalind Franklin, which has six wheels, the Sample Fetch Rover will have four to save mass and complexity.

According to Airbus, the type, size and number of wheels has been chosen to better cope with the selected landing site terrain and with the speed and performance required to reach the depot location and return the samples in due time to the lander.

The Sample Fetch Rover is required to travel more than 15km across the Red Planet searching and collect up to 36 of the 43 sample tubes left by the Perseverance rover. The samples are due to land back on Earth in 2031.

“The Sample Fetch Rover project is a great opportunity to make use of the technology developed in the UK for Rosalind Franklin, and build on this with new cutting edge autonomous visual recognition, sample retrieval system and a faster rover to deliver this challenging mission," said Boyes.