The robotic exploration of Mars lies at the heart of the latest international space missions. Leonardo is involved in studying cutting-edge robotic systems, which may contribute to discovery of the Red Planet’s secrets. For NASA’s ‘Mars Sample Return’ (MSR) campaign in collaboration with ESA, Leonardo and Airbus have been awarded a contract for the advanced study phase of the ESA Sample Fetch Rover (SFR) robotic arm and ESA financing to pursue study of the Sample Transfer Arm (STA) for the NASA lander.

Leonardo, with an important contribution from the Italian Space Agency, is involved in the study of two crucial elements for the MSR 2026 mission: the arm of both the rover and the lander, being committed to design the respective robotic systems for the acquisition and manipulation of samples.

The SFR industrial consortium is led by Airbus UK. The design of the SFR robotic arm, after early study and testing, is now entering an advanced phase with development of the first robotic arm prototype to show system capabilities. Extendable to about 110cm, its control system features six degrees of freedom and is equipped with a gripper or end effector. NASA lander’s STA is a more complex arm, with seven degrees of freedom, that exceeds 200cm of extension, and is now in the early development phase. Leonardo leads the international consortium designing the control electronics, software and vision system.

The design of both SFR and STA robotic arms is based on experience gained in the development of the Leonardo DELIAN and DEXARM models – still considered standards in the European space market. In addition, the company has extensive knowledge of the space drilling sector, having developed drills for missions such as ROSETTA, ExoMars and LUNA-27.

For the MSR campaign, Leonardo will also contribute to the Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) through Thales Alenia Space, which will be responsible for supplying the communication system allowing data transmission between Earth, ERO and Mars, designing the crucial Orbit Insertion Module, and managing the Assembly Integration and Test phase for the Proto-Flight model of the ERO spacecraft.

The joint ESA/NASA MSR campaign includes three missions launched from 2020, which will work together towards the ambitious goal of bringing Mars soil samples back to Earth by 2031. The first NASA mission, Mars2020, launched in July, will see the rover PERSEVERANCE drill and collect samples, sealing them to await collection by the following mission. The second MSR mission, Sample Retrieval Lander, will launch in 2026 and will consist of three elements: the NASA lander, the ESA Sample Fetch Rover, and the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV). Leonardo is involved in studying the arms for the NASA lander and the ESA rover, which will have different features and tasks. The rover, through the robotic arm, will search for and collect the sample tubes and return them to the NASA lander, which will use its arm to transfer them to the MAV, which will launch them into Mars orbit.

Earth Return Orbiter, the third MSR mission, will collect the capsule in orbit and return it to Earth, with a planned landing in Utah. Thales Alenia Space will be involved with the furniture of the orbiter’s crucial elements.

Leonardo robotics at work on the Mars Sample Return missions. (Infographic: Leonardo)

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