The European Space Agency has tapped Airbus to design a rover and a spacecraft that will be launched in 2026 to retrieve samples of Martian soil and bring them back to Earth for study.
The Toulouse, France-based company said Thursday that the Mars Sample Return mission will involve sending the Mars Sample Fetch Rover to the red planet’s surface to retrieve 36 tubes containing soil samples, which NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission will have collected and left for pick-up.
ESA’s rover will then load the samples into a container, which will be launched into orbit and collected by the Earth Return Orbiter.
Ben Boyes, the Sample Fetch Rover project manager at Airbus described the Martian mission as “ambitious and technologically very advanced,” adding that “[a] double first of launching from the planet’s surface and the in-orbit transfer of the samples means it will be possible for the first time to directly study Mars soil in laboratories on Earth.”
The Mars Sample Return mission is a joint initiative between the ESA and NASA. The two agencies signed a letter of intent earlier this year, though approval of the mission from the ESA council at the ministerial level is still pending.