The European Space Agency (ESA) has awarded a contract of worth £3.9 million (US$5.2 million) to Airbus for designing a fetch rover that will do the work of collecting Martian soil samples left behind by NASA’s Mars 2020 rover.
Airbus is already constructing the ExoMars rover in Stevenage, England that is set to make its way to the Red planet in 2021 to collect data. The company’s same UK team will work on the newly assigned project. The fetch rover is expected to get ready for launch by 2026.
NASA’s highly ambitious Mars 2020 rover will land on the planet, drill and scoop soil samples from the Martian surface, collect them in the canister and drop them off at several depot points. The fetch rover’s task will be to retrieve the sample canisters that NASA’s Mars 2020 rover leaves behind using its robotic arm. All of this has to be done autonomously. In fact, the rover will also have to plot its route by itself. Notably, it could take the vehicle around 150 days to retrieve all the canisters left by the Mars 2020 rover.
After collection, Fetch’s next step will be to load the canisters to a NASA-provided rocket known as a Mars Ascent Vehicle that will launch them into Mars orbit. The rocket will then rendezvous with a European orbiter, which will seal the samples inside an armored, biologically isolated container and bring them back to earth safely.
According to Ben Boyes, who will lead Airbus’s feasibility team, Fetch will be a relatively small rover weighing about 130 kg. It will have to cover large distances using a high degree of autonomy, planning its own path ahead day after day.
The Fetch rover is still in a concept stage. It will turn into a reality only if the agencies can develop the technologies needed and if their feasibility studies find the mission worth pursuing.