ESA Selects Airbus as Prime Contractor for Mars Sample Return’s Earth Return Orbiter

 In Europe, Space

Airbus has been select­ed by the European Space Agency (ESA) as prime con­trac­tor for the Mars Sample Return’s Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) – the first ever space­craft to bring 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 to be designed and built by Airbus. A manip­u­lat­ing arm, referred to as the Sample Transfer Arm (STA), that will trans­fer the sam­ples from the SFR to the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), is the third European con­tri­bu­tion to the MSR pro­gram. The value of the ERO con­tract is € 491 mil­lion.

The five year mis­sion will see the space­craft 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.

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.

“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.

To be launched on an Ariane 6 in 2026, the 6 ton, 6 m high space­craft, equipped with 144m² solar arrays with a span of over 40 m – some of the biggest ever built – will take about a year to reach Mars. 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, two essen­tial parts of the MSR Campaign.

For the second part of its mis­sion, 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; 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 spe­cialised han­dling facil­i­ty where they will be quar­an­tined. 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.

Airbus will have over­all respon­si­bil­i­ty for the ERO mis­sion, devel­op­ing the space­craft in Toulouse, and con­duct­ing mis­sion analy­sis in Stevenage. Thales Alenia Space Turin will also have an impor­tant role, assem­bling the space­craft, devel­op­ing the com­mu­ni­ca­tion system and pro­vid­ing the Orbit Insertion Module. The mis­sion enabling RIT-2X ion engines will be pro­vid­ed by ArianeGroup.

Mars Sample Return

Mars Sample Return is a set of three sep­a­rate­ly launched mis­sions, which will togeth­er achieve the objec­tive of return­ing Mars sam­ples to Earth before the end of 2031.

The NASA-led Mars 2020 rover, known as Perseverance, was launched in July 2020 to land on Mars in February 2021. Perseverance will acquire Mars sam­ples, cache them into sample tubes, and leave the tubes in one or more depots for later col­lec­tion by the SRL mis­sion and its European Sample Fetch Rover.

The NASA-led SRL is to be launched in 2026 and com­pris­es a sur­face plat­form with a European robot­ic Sample Transfer Arm (STA), the Sample Fetch Rover (SFR), and a Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV). The sur­face plat­form will land in the near vicin­i­ty of the sample tube depot in the Jezero crater. SFR will nav­i­gate, locate and col­lect the sample tubes, and return to the lander plat­form. The STA will trans­fer the sample tubes into the Orbiting Sample (OS) then load the OS aboard the MAV. The MAV will launch the OS into Mars orbit, where ERO will be wait­ing to ren­dezvous and cap­ture it.

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, descent and land­ing, sur­face oper­a­tions, and the MAV launch plac­ing the OS into Mars orbit. ERO will have to detect, ren­dezvous with, and cap­ture the OS. The OS will then be bio-sealed and trans­ferred to the EEV before ERO heads back to Earth.

Upon approach to Earth, ERO will release the Earth Entry System on an Earth entry tra­jec­to­ry. After land­ing in the desert of Utah, the sam­ples are trans­ferred to a sample receiv­ing and cura­tion facilit

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