‘Interplanetary cargo ship’ built by Airbus will bring Mars rocks to Earth

NASA’s Perseverance rover begins its seven-month journey to Mars this week in a groundbreaking mission aimed at searching for signs of ancient life on the distant planet.

The ultimate plan is to transport any interesting rock or soil samples to Earth so that scientists can take a closer look.

But while getting to Mars is hard enough, getting something back from Mars, well, that’s another challenge entirely.

We learned recently that this lofty responsibility has been placed largely with Airbus after the European Space Agency (ESA) selected it to help build the Earth Return Orbiter for a Mars mission expected to take place in 2026.

Dr David Parker, director of human and robotic exploration at ESA, spoke to the BBC this week about the upcoming work.

The orbiter, which will weigh a hefty 6.5 tons and incorporate solar arrays 39 meters across, is described by Parker as an “interplanetary cargo ship.”

“I like to call it ‘the first interplanetary cargo ship’, because that’s what it will be doing — it’s designed to carry cargo between Mars and Earth,” Parker said.

The engineer also found an interesting way to describe the scale of the task ahead, saying, “This is not just twice as difficult as any typical Mars mission; it’s twice squared, when you think about the complexity involved.”

An artist’s impression of the Earth Return Orbiter. Airbus

The challenge of transporting rock and soil samples from Mars to Earth involves a series of steps that will start with Perseverance placing its gathered material into a basketball-sized container. Six years from now, a so-called “fetch rover,” also being built by Airbus, will arrive on the Martian surface and transfer the materials to a waiting ascent vehicle. Next, the ascent vehicle will perform the first-ever lift-off from Mars before placing the container into an orbit around the planet. After that, Airbus’s orbiter will catch the container, seal it inside a biocontainment system, and then head home.

But the complicated operation doesn’t end there. When the orbiter nears Earth, it will have to release the container at the right moment to ensure that it falls onto empty land in the U.S. where it can be safely retrieved. A similar feat was achieved in 2010 by Japan’s space agency when its Hayabusa spacecraft returned a sample of material from a near-Earth asteroid.

Parker noted how people have been talking for years about bringing back a sample of material from Mars, adding, “But we’re now in the exciting situation where we’re about to do it. This dream is about to become a reality.”

We’re still a few years away from Airbus launching its orbiter skyward, but the story starts early on Thursday with the launch of Perseverance aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Here’s how you can watch the event live online.

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