Engineers plot Mars mission to bring samples back to Earth

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Placing white marker pens on a sandy, rock-strewn floor. To Airbus engineers, working in this state-of-the-art Mars Yard test area, they’re not markers, they’re Mars… part of it, at least.

Airbus is developing robotic technology that could be used by NASA and the European Space Agency on a joint mission to bring samples of the Martian surface back to Earth for study.

It’s a complex mission, that researchers hope will afford laboratories here on Earth new opportunities to study Mars’s geology, climate and especially its potential for life, either in the past or even today.

There’ll be two missions — one, with the Mars 2020 rover, which will collects samples on the Martian surface.

And a second, to follow, which would land nearby, deploy a small rover to fetch the samples, and then bring them back to the lander, from where they would be loaded into a container and placed atop a small rocket.

“You can do a lot on the surface of Mars with the rovers, but it’s not comparable to what you can do with a fully equipped lab on Earth,” explains Airbus engineering manager Adam Camilletti.

“On Earth, we’ve got geologists, we’ve got electron microscopes, we’ve got biological experiments, we’ve got all the technology that’s been developed over the space race and even before that. So, we can do a whole wealth of investigations, looking for fossils, looking for signs of previous life on Mars, better understanding of the geological processes that have shaped the surface of Mars, which just aren’t possible within the power, size constraints that you have on a rover or a spacecraft.”

As part of the mission, NASA’s 2020 Mars rover, that’s set to depart for the Red Planet in July next year and land in February 2021, will collect rock and soil samples and deposit them in 36 pen-sized tubes across the Martian surface.

Years later, a second rover, built by ESA, will land on Mars and collect the samples, before loading them onto an ascent vehicle that will carry them into orbit.

Key to the mission’s success will be AI systems able to spot the sample tubes on Mars’ red-tinged surface and a robotic arm able to pick them up.

Due to the communication delay between Earth and Mars, the rover will have to perform most of its tasks autonomously.

“It will have a robot arm on the front of the rover, and that, along with the vision system, will have to detect sample tubes left on the surface of Mars by the NASA 2020 rover. It will have to detect them, autonomously use the robot arm to pick them up, store them on the rover, and then the rover has to drive back to the lander and deposit those sample tubes there,” explains Camilletti.

“So, because of the distance between Earth and Mars, and the complexity in communicating with the rover, it needs to do that without human intervention from ground.”

Engineers are using Airbus’ Mars Yard in Stevenage, UK to test their robotic systems, but even this state-of-the-art facility is nothing compared to conditions on the Red Planet, where there’s hugely varying temperatures and radiation.

They hope to test them in more challenging Earth-bound environments, such as South America’s Atacama Desert. White marker pens are about the same size and shape as the sample tubes NASA’s 2020 Mars rover is taking to the Red Planet.

“One of the key things that we have to look out for is that we’re going to be trying to find these tubes (at) different times during the day. And that means that there will be potentially different lighting conditions, different shadow conditions, if we’re behind one rocket at one time of the day, a shadow could completely cover our tube. However, in other times in the day, we might be in brightness, or with the tube casting its own very large shadow behind it,” explains robotic systems engineer Matt Lisle.

If engineers’ work goes to plan, ESA’s Sample Fetch Rover could begin its journey to the Red Planet in 2026, helping deliver samples of the Martian surface back to Earth by 2031.

Or as Camilletti calls them, “gold dust”.

“Yeah I think gold dust is a good way of describing it. They would be so valuable in terms of the science return. We’ll learn so much from them, you know, about the history of Mars, the geological history, perhaps the biological history, the chemical history. Learning about other planets can also inform us about how our whole solar system formed, including our own planet. So, there’s a wealth of knowledge. You know I believe people are still getting papers and scientific discoveries out of the lunar samples fifty years on. So, if you imagine what we’ll go out of Martian samples, the mind boggles really,” he says.

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