Airbus is making major contributions to humanity’s quests to Mars. We build on extensive experience in complex scientific exploration missions – such the first European probes to Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Mercury and the first spacecraft to land on a comet with Rosetta.
The ExoMars rover mission – which is the first European rover mission to the Red Planet – will search for evidence of past or present life on Mars and help us better understand the history of water on the planet.
Named Rosalind Franklin in honour of the scientist who helped discover DNA, the Airbus-built six-wheeled autonomous navigation rover is equipped with a drill able to take samples up to two metres below the surface. They will be analysed on board the rover and the results sent to Earth. Its 3D panoramic camera will take images but also provide data on the surface texture and atmosphere.
The European Space Agency (ESA) and Roscosmos mission is set to be launched in autumn 2022.
Airbus Defence and Space is developing the ExoMars rover, to be launched in 2022
The rover has been named after UK scientist Rosalind Franklin
Mission: Search for life on Mars in a joint European/Russian venture
The European and Russian space agencies (ESA and Roscosmos, respectively) launched their joint mission on 14 March 2016 to test technology for future exploratory surface missions on Mars.
The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, the first in a series of the two space agencies’ collaborative Mars missions, monitors seasonal changes in the planet’s atmosphere composition and temperature in search for evidence of methane and other atmospheric gases that could be evidence of active biological or geological processes.
This is just the first part of the programme whose ultimate goal is to examine the geological environment and search for life on Mars. ExoMars will also help to prepare for other robotic missions and possible future human exploration.
Its second part, scheduled for 2022, will send the 300 kg. ExoMars rover – a robotic vehicle – to the planet, with the landing scheduled for 2023. Capable of drilling as deep as two metres below the surface, it will search for signs of past or present life. The collected data will help to evaluate risks for future crewed missions as well as assist in broader studies of Martian geochemistry and environmental science.
The ExoMars rover was built by Airbus Defence and Space, at the company’s UK facility in Stevenage, UK. The rover has been named after Rosalind Franklin, a UK scientist and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. ExoMars is the first to honour a woman scientist on its flagship discovery craft.
The rover has been named after UK scientist Rosalind Franklin
Mars Rover in Trafalgar Square
The Mars rover prototype built by Airbus Defence and Space for the ExoMars mission was featured in Trafalgar Square, London, the UK in November 2016 for the launch event of National Geographic’s TV series “MARS.”
Exomars in Trafalgar Square
Mars sample return mission
Airbus is working on two studies for ESA to design a Sample Fetch Rover and an Earth Return Orbiter. These two elements will be critical parts of a mission to return samples from the Red Planet to Earth before the end of the decade.
After launching to Mars in 2026, the Sample Fetch Rover will retrieve Mars samples left by NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission. The NASA rover will leave 36 pen-sized sample tubes on the Martian surface ready to be collected later. The Sample Fetch Rover will pick up the sample tubes, carry them back and load them into a sample container within the waiting Mars Ascent Vehicle. The Mars Ascent Vehicle will then launch from the surface and put the sample container into orbit around Mars.
As a third part of the mission, ESA's Earth Return Orbiter will capture the basketball-sized sample container orbiting Mars, seal it within a biocontainment system and bring the samples back to Earth. The samples will re-enter Earth's atmosphere and land in the US before 2030. Scientists from around the world will then be able to study the samples using the latest laboratory equipment and analysis techniques for years to come.
The Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) is a key element in the European/U.S. Mars Sample Return Campaign
ERO’s lift-off is set for 2026 on an Ariane 64 launcher
Airbus is the ERO prime contractor
ERO benefits from Airbus’ autonomous rendezvous and docking expertise, flight-proven technologies and interplanetary mission experience
Airbus was selected in 2020 by the European Space Agency as prime contractor for the Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) spacecraft. The ERO is a key element of the joint European/U.S. Mars Sample Return Campaign – a set of three separately-launched missions to achieve the objective of bringing Mars samples to Earth before the end of 2031.
The ERO’s five-year mission will begin with its 2026 launch by an Ariane 64 from French Guiana. Once in orbit around Mars, ERO will act as a communication relay for surface missions of the Mars Sample Return campaign, and is to receive samples brought up from the Red Planet for the flight back to Earth.
For ERO, Airbus will apply the autonomous rendezvous and docking capabilities gained during decades of space optical navigation expertise. This includes technologies from its ATV (Automated Transfer Vehicle) cargo spacecraft that serviced the International Space Station, along with the knowledge gained in developing Europe’s first mission to Jupiter, JUICE.
ATV-5 “Georges Lemaître” in space
With a mass of six tonnes at lift-off from Earth, the six-metre-tall ERO spacecraft will have solar arrays covering a surface of 144 sq. metres and spanning more than 40 metres – among the largest ever built. During the ERO’s year-long voyage to Mars, solar electric propulsion will be employed for the cruise, followed by chemical propulsion for Mars orbit insertion. Solar electric propulsion will be utilised once again as ERO spirals down to a targeted circular rendezvous orbit at approximately 400 km. above the Mars surface.
While orbiting the Red Planet, the ERO is to provide communications coverage for the Perseverance Rover and the Sample Retrieval Lander – both developed by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which are two essential parts of the overall Mars Sample Return Campaign.
For the ERO mission’s second phase, the orbiter will detect, rendezvous with, and capture a basketball-size object called the Orbiting Sample (OS), which carries sample tubes collected on the Mars surface by the Sample Fetch Rover – an Airbus-developed four-wheel vehicle that will travel the planet to locate and pick up these samples.
The Orbiting Sample will be carried aloft by a Mars Ascent Vehicle to meet up with the ERO. After the Orbiting Sample’s rendezvous with ERO, an onboard Capture, Containment, and Return System (supplied by NASA) is to isolate the Orbiting Sample and transfer it within the ERO to an Earth Entry Vehicle (also supplied by NASA). Following a year-long return trip to Earth, ERO will deploy the Earth Entry Vehicle for touchdown at a pre-defined landing site.
In Airbus’ role as ERO’s prime contractor, the company will have overall responsibility for the orbiter’s mission, with spacecraft development centred in Toulouse, France, and mission analysis performed in the UK at its Stevenage operation.
Earth Return Orbiter Infographic