NASA and the European Space Agency agreed in April this year to find out if it was possible to bring soil samples from Mars back to Earth. To that end, Airbus has been awarded a $5.2 million contract by the European Space Agency to develop a concept for a Mars rover which will be able to collect those samples on Mars. The Airbus team based in Stevenage, England was selected because it’s already building the ExoMars rover which is due to head to Mars in 2021.
The rover tasked with collecting soil samples will be different from the ExoMars which has sophisticated scientific instruments. Its sole purpose will be to find and collect the canisters of Martian soil samples that NASA’s Mars 2020 rover prepares and leaves behind.
NASA’s Mars 2020 rover is going to dig up soil samples and store them in more than 30 tubes which will be dropped at various points. The idea is to have this fetch rover on Mars by 2026 where it will be able to detect those canisters from a distance, drive to their location on its own, pick them up with the help of a robotic arm, and then keep them in a storage space.
The feasibility team at Airbus for this project mentions that it’s going to be a relatively small rover that weighs around 130kg but will have to put up with demanding requirements which include covering large distances “using a high degree of autonomy, planning its own path ahead day after day.”
The rover may take around 150 days to collect all of the canisters left behind by the Mars 2020 rover after that it will have to locate the rocket that delivered it to Mars. The tubes will be handed off to the rocket which will then blast off and hopefully make its way back to Earth.