ESA Begins Designing Mission to Return NASA’s Mars Samples to Earth

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NASA is working toward the launch of its still unnamed Mars 2020 rover, which will bristle with scientific instruments. While it’s photographing and scanning the red planet, the 2020 rover will also collect a few dozen soil samples. It doesn’t have any way to get those samples back to Earth, so NASA is working with the European Space Agency (ESA) to make that happen. The ESA has just awarded a $ 5.2 million contract for Airbus to create a concept design for a separate sample collection rover.

This hypothetical rover doesn’t have a name either — it’s currently just referred to as the “fetch rover” because its job is to fetch the sample containers left in the wake of NASA’s larger rover. That mission will launch in the early 2020s. This rover will include the necessary drill and container hardware to leave behind more than 30 samples in caches across the planet. Getting those samples back to Earth would allow scientists to analyze them using more sophisticated equipment than what can be packed into a single rover.

The fetch rover will most likely be a small contraption, and it may look much different from the concept rendering. Airbus’ Ben Boyes says they estimate the current theoretical design would weigh about 130 kilograms (about 287 pounds). It would probably take around 150 days for the fetch rover to collect all the canisters from Mars 2020. The goal is to develop a rover that can handle the containers autonomously after it has been maneuvered into position.

A rough draft of the proposed fetch rover.

Getting the samples into the fetch rover is just the beginning of returning them to Earth. The robot would need to make its way back to the landing craft it used to reach the surface and load the samples inside. Then, the ESA would need to launch it back into space. This part is still very much in flux — no one knows what such a rocket would look like because we’ve never launched anything from the surface of Mars before. The payload would rendezvous with an orbiter which then returns to Earth.

The first stage of designing the fetch rover is a feasibility study to determine if it’s possible to even conduct this operation with current technology. If the ESA and NASA determine we can’t be reasonably sure of successfully bringing the sample containers back to Earth, they’ll just have to sit tight on Mars for another decade or so until technology catches up.

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