Luxembourg, 14 October 2020: Airbus has been selected by the European Space Agency (ESA) for its ambitious five-year mission to go to Mars and bring the first samples from the Red Planet back to Earth, the company announced in Toulouse. This will be the first ever spacecraft to bring back samples back to Earth from Mars. Mars Sample Return (MSR) is a joint ESA-NASA campaign and the next step in the exploration of Mars. ERO and the Sample Fetch Rover (SFR) are the two main European elements of MSR, both are set and designed to be built and improvised by Airbus. A manipulating arm, referred to as the Sample Transfer Arm (STA) that will prompt with the transferring process of the samples from the SFR to the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), is the third European contribution to the MSR program.
This five year mission will observe the spacecraft slowly head to Mars, act as a communication relay with the surface missions, perform a rendezvous with the orbiting samples and bring them safely back to Earth. Prior to launch from the Mars surface onboard the MAV, the Martian samples will be stored in sample tubes and collected by the SFR, for which Airbus has already commenced the study phase.
Airbus acts as ESA’s prime contractor for the Earth Return Orbiter (ERO), the first ever spacecraft to bring Martian samples back to Earth, the company said. For ERO, “Airbus will use its autonomous rendezvous and docking expertise built up over decades of experience in optical navigation, using technologies from the successful ATV (Automated Transfer Vehicle) and recent developments from JUICE, Europe’s first mission to Jupiter”. The value of the contract is € 491 million.
“We’re bringing the full force of our experience gained on Rosetta, Mars Express, Venus Express, Gaia, ATV, BepiColombo, and JUICE to ensure this mission succeeds. Bringing samples back to Earth from Mars will be an extraordinary feat, taking interplanetary science to a new level and Airbus is excited to take on this challenge as part of this joint international mission. ” said Jean-Marc Nasr, Head of Airbus Space Systems.
The Mars Sample Return mission is a joint campaign from ESA and NASA and the next step in the exploration of Mars, Airbus said. The Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) and the Sample Fetch Rover, both designed and built by Airbus, are the two main European elements of that campaign.
This mission consists of two parts, the ERO is to be launched on an Ariane 6 rocket in 2026 and will take about a year to reach the Red Planet, Airbus said. It is a 6 ton, 6 meters high spacecraft, equipped with 144m² of solar arrays with a span of over 40 meters. Its main mission is to capture samples from the NASA Perseverance rover (launched in July) and its European counterpart, to bio-seal them, place them in a vehicle procured by NASA and bring them back to Earth. It will use a mass-efficient hybrid propulsion system combining electric propulsion for the cruise and spiral down phases and chemical propulsion for Mars orbit insertion. Upon arrival, it will provide communications coverage for the NASA Perseverance Rover and Sample Retrieval Lander (SRL) missions, the two essential parts of the MSR Campaign.
Secondly, ERO will have to detect, rendezvous with, and capture a basketball-size object called the Orbiting Sample (OS), which houses the sample tubes collected by SFR and all this over 50 million km away from ground control. Once captured, the OS will be bio-sealed in a secondary containment system and placed inside the Earth Entry Vehicle (EEV), effectively a third containment system, to ensure that the precious samples reach the Earth’s surface intact for maximum scientific return. It will then take another year for ERO to make its way back to Earth, where it will send the EEV on a precision trajectory towards a pre-defined landing site, before itself entering into a stable orbit around the Sun.
After landing, the samples will be transferred to a specialized handling facility where they will be quarantined for a while. Once the sample tubes are opened, initial measurements will be taken to generate a detailed catalogue, enabling specific parts of the samples to then be targeted for specialist science investigations and easier study of the fragments found on Mars.
Airbus will possess the overall responsibility for the ERO mission, the company said, developing the spacecraft in Toulouse and conducting mission analysis in Stevenage in the UK. Thales Alenia Space will assemble the spacecraft in Turin, develop the communication system and provide the module for the orbit insertion. The mission’s ion engines will be provided by ArianeGroup.
The Mars Sample Return-
The 3-step procedure profoundly planned for the very purpose of bring the sample back to Earth safely will surely pull through and the separated launched missions will help achieve that goal of returning Mars samples to Earth before the end of 2031.
The ESA-led Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) is also to be launched in 2026 and will have onboard the NASA-led Capture, Containment and Return System (CCRS), which will handle and bio-seal the OS as well as provide the Earth Entry Vehicle (EEV). ERO will arrive in Mars orbit on time to provide communications coverage for the SRL entry with, descent and landing, surface operations, and the MAV launch placing the OS into Mars orbit. ERO will have to detect, get together with, and capture the OS. The OS will then be bio-sealed and transferred to the EEV before ERO heads back to Earth.
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