Although the first telescope was directed to the Red Planet in the 17th century, and the first successful landings on the surface (unmanned, of course, because we are talking about probes) already in the 1970s, so far no samples from Mars have reached Earth. This is a huge problem that makes the preparation of further Martian missions much more difficult, because it deprives us of precise knowledge about the conditions there - of course, we have data from the Curiosity rover, but it's not the same. Providing such samples would certainly be a landmark event, which is why the European Space Agency and NASA have joined forces in the Mars Sample Return project.
Its key element is the Earth Return Orbiter spacecraft, which technology news use the Ariane 6 rocket to set off on its 5-year mission in 2026. The Perseverance rover, which is scheduled to land on the surface of the Red Planet in February next year, is also of great importance - it is he who will be traveling the new land in search of any form of life, past or present, collecting appropriate samples. They will be sealed in airtight tubes and left at several predetermined points, where they will be waiting to be taken. Simplifying the whole process, a special rover will pick them up, transfer them to a capsule, which will be carried into orbit, from where the mentioned Earth Return Orbiter will pick them up.
This 6-ton spacecraft will arrive in orbit around Mars in 2027 and will use its autonomous systems to meet the capsule containing the Orbiting Sample and take it aboard, where it will be re-sealed and placed in the Earth Entry Vehicle. The Earth Return Orbiter will then leave the orbit of Mars and set off on a yearly journey to Earth - after that the Earth Entry Vehicle will be released and enter our atmosphere, and the ERO will go into the orbit of the sun.
The Earth Entry Vehicle is scheduled to land in the Utah desert, where samples will be collected and immediately quarantined before they can be safely tested. Or at least that is the plan, because, as always in such cases, many things can go wrong, but ESA does not intend to risk at least one, so an experienced company, Airbus, will be responsible for the design and construction of the Earth Return Orbiter.
Its representatives do not hide their joy from such a turn of events: - We gather the full strength of our experience gained with Rosetta, Mars Express, Venus Express, Gaia, ATV, BepiColombo and JUICE to ensure the success of this mission. Delivering the samples from Mars to Earth will be a remarkable event taking interplanetary science to a whole new level and Airbus is excited to take on this challenge, comments Jean-Marc Nasr, head of Airbus Space Systems.