Airbus has been selected by the European Space Agency (ESA) as the main contractor for the Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) mission of the Mars Sample Return (MSR), the first spacecraft to bring samples from Mars to Earth.
Mars Sample Return (MSR) is the joint mission of ESA and NASA and is the next step in the mission to explore Mars. ERO and Sample Fetch Rover (SFR) are the two main European divisions of MSR and will be designed and built by Airbus. A branch called the Sample Transfer Arm (STA), which will transfer 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 Euros.
The five-year mission will include the spacecraft's departure to Mars, acting as a communications relay with Earth, meeting orbiting samples, and bringing them to Earth safely. Before the MAV is launched from the Mars surface, Mars samples will be stored in sample tubes and collected by the SFR, where Airbus initiates the work phase.
For ERO, Airbus will use the autonomous meeting and placement expertise accumulated over a decade in optical navigation, using technologies in its successful Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) and the latest from JUICE, Europe's first Jupiter mission.
Jean-Marc Nasr, President of Airbus Space Systems, said, “We use all the strength we have gained from our experience with Rosetta, Mars Express, Venus Express, Gaia, ATV, BepiColombo and JUICE to ensure the success of this mission. "Bringing samples from Mars to Earth will be an extraordinary achievement, taking interplanetary science to a new level, and we are excited that Airbus is taking this responsibility as part of the international joint mission."
The Ariane 2026, a 6-ton, 6-meter-high, 40-meter-span 144m2 spacecraft to be launched in 6, will take about a year to reach Mars. It will use a mass-efficient hybrid propulsion system that combines the electric propulsion for the cruising and spiral landing phases and the chemical propellant for placement in Martian orbit. Upon arrival, the MSR will provide data for the NASA Perseverance Rover and Sample Retrieval Lander (SRL) missions, two important parts of the mission.
In the second part of its mission, ERO is tasked with detecting, meeting with and retrieving a basketball-ball-sized object called the Orbiting Sample (OS), which houses sample tubes collected by SFR, and all this will happen 50 million km from ground control. Upon receipt, the OS will be held in a secondary containment system and placed in the Earth Entry Vehicle (EEV), an effective third containment system to ensure valuable samples arrive intact to the earth's surface for maximum scientific return. Subsequently, the ERO will take a year to return to Earth, during this phase it will push the EEV into a precise orbit toward a predefined landing site before entering a stable orbit around the Sun.
After landing, samples will be transferred to a special processing facility where they will be quarantined. After the sample tubes are opened, the first measurements will be made to create a detailed data catalog to ensure that certain parts of the samples are set targets for later specialist science research.
Airbus will be responsible for the ERO mission, developing the spacecraft in Toulouse and conducting mission analysis at Stevenage. Thales Alenia Space Torino will also play an important role in assembling the spacecraft, developing the communication system and providing the orbital addition module. ArianeGroup will be responsible for supplying the RIT-2X ion engines.