ESA awards Mars sample return study contracts as international cooperation plans take shape

ESA is studying a rover that would fetch samples for launch on a NASA-built Mars Ascent Vehicle (above), as well as an orbiter that would capture the sample container for return to Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The European Space Agency awarded two contracts to Airbus to study elements of a Mars sample return approach as the outlines of international cooperation with NASA on that effort materialize.

Airbus announced July 6 that it received two study contracts from ESA regarding Mars sample return mission concepts. Those studies include a rover to collect samples and an orbiter to return those samples to Earth.

The Mars Sample Fetch Rover, as conceived by ESA, would launch to Mars in 2026 on a NASA lander mission. It would use a robotic arm to gather samples cached by NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission, returning those samples to the lander and loading them into a NASA-provided rocket known as a Mars Ascent Vehicle that will launch them into Mars orbit.

The Earth Return Orbiter would rendezvous with the sample contained in Mars orbit. The orbiter would place the sample inside a biocontainment system in a reentry capsule for return to Earth by the end of the 2020s.