Contributing to humanity’s exploration of Mars is in our veins! Building on extensive experience in such complex interplanetary missions as the first European probes to Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Mercury – along with Rosetta, the first spacecraft to land on a comet – Airbus is actively working on a number of Mars missions to launch in the coming decade.
Our Mars story started at the turn of the century with the Mars Express mission launching in 2002 and still returning valuable data for scientists today. Looking to the future, Airbus is playing a leading role in the ExoMars and Mars Sample Return missions.
The ExoMars rover mission – which is the first European rover mission to the Red Planet – is all set to go and search for evidence of past or present life on Mars and help humankind better understand the history of water on the planet.
Built by Airbus Defence and Space at the company’s UK facility in Stevenage, the rover is named after Rosalind Franklin – a British scientist and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA.
This six-wheeled navigation vehicle is equipped with an autonomous navigation system developed by Airbus which will enable it to travel much more quickly than by being driven remotely in real time from Earth. Its drill can take samples from as deep as two metres below the surface and these will be analysed onboard the rover before sending the results to Earth. Its 3D panoramic camera will take images as well as providing data on the surface texture and atmosphere.
The ExoMars rover, built by Airbus at Stevenage in the UK.
The ExoMars rover is named after British scientist Rosalind Franklin
Mars Sample Fetch Rover
Bringing samples of Mars to Earth has been a dream of scientists for decades, and Airbus know-how will contribute to making this dream a reality as part of the international Mars Sample Return Campaign.
A planetary “mini-taxi” called the Sample Fetch Rover is being built by Airbus for the European Space Agency. It will roam Mars for the collection of dust and rock material gathered by the U.S. NASA’s Perseverance wheeled explorer vehicle and deposited in test tube-sized packets.
After their collection, these precious packets will be delivered by the Sample Fetch Rover to a small launcher, which will lift off from Mars and enter Martian orbit for capture by the Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) spacecraft – which also is designed and built by Airbus for the European Space Agency.
The Sample Fetch Rover will retrieve up to 30 sample tubes left by the Perseverance rover (which has been operating on the Mars since February 2021). To search and collect these samples, the Airbus rover is to travel more than four kilometres across the Red Planet.
The Mars Sample Fetch Rover is depicted during its recovery of a sample on the Red Planet’s surface
Mars Earth Return Orbiter
With a mass of six tonnes when begins its round-trip mission 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.
An artist's impression of ESA's Earth Return Orbiter
During the ERO’s year-long voyage to Mars, solar electric propulsion will be used during cruise, followed by chemical propulsion for Mars orbit insertion. Solar electric propulsion will be employed once again as ERO spirals down to a targeted circular rendezvous orbit at approximately 400 km. above Mars to capture the packaged surface samples.
For its interplanetary voyage, ERO will benefit from the autonomous rendezvous and docking capabilities gained by Airbus during decades of space optical navigation expertise. This includes technologies from the 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, called JUICE.
After ERO captures the packets of Martian surface material in Mars orbit, the spacecraft will then head back to the vicinity of Earth where the samples will be released for Earth where the samples will be released for landing and recovery.
ERO is a truly multi-function spacecraft: while orbiting Mars, it will provide communications coverage for the Perseverance Rover and the NASA Sample Retrieval Lander – which are two essential parts of the overall Mars Sample Return campaign.
In Airbus’ role as prime contractor for ERO under responsibility of the European Space Agency, the company will have overall responsibility for this orbiter’s mission. The spacecraft’s development is centred at Airbus’ Toulouse, France operation, with mission analysis performed in the company’s UK facility at Stevenage.