Mars' surface samples in reach as European Space Agency signs deal for 'robotic arm'

Farnborough deal snaps up device that picks up particles and inserts them into a container

A prototype of the robotic arm is inspected by an expert at Leonardo. Photo: Leonardo
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A robotic arm is being developed to retrieve samples of the surface of Mars under a new deal signed by aerospace technology manufacturer Leonardo and the European Space Agency at the Farnborough Airshow.

The mission aims to land the device, measuring 2.5 metres in length, on the red planet by 2030 and bring samples back to Earth for the first time for examination.

The contract was signed on the second day of the Farnborough International Airshow in Hampshire, UK, the first major post-pandemic gathering of the aerospace and defence sectors.

Leonardo agreed to design, manufacture, integrate and test the device, called the Sample Transfer Arm, for the Mars Sample Return programme, a mission led by Nasa in collaboration with the ESA.

Following a successful study and prototyping phase, Leonardo, at the head of a European consortium, will now take responsibility for the development of the system through to its first operations on Mars.

The technology mimics a human arm with a “shoulder”, “elbow” and “wrist” and has the capacity to perform multiple movements with 7 degrees of freedom. It is fitted with a “brain” and “eyes” to better enable functioning on another planet.

Equipped with limbs, joints and a “hand”, the arm is managed by control electronics. It can pick up samples from the ground and insert them into a container before closing the lid.

Together with its vision system composed of two cameras, the instrument receives information from its sensors and sends to the mechanisms instructions through about 600 signals. This architecture allows the system’s “brain” to autonomously decide the best course of action and co-ordinate movements accordingly.

Challenges related to the harsh Martian environment, such as the copious dust and extreme temperatures (-130°C/+70°C) will be taken into account while designing and building the robotic arm.

Leonardo, which operates in Italy, the UK, the US and Poland, has agreed to schedule deliver of the arm for 2025.

It will then be installed on the Nasa Sample Retrieval Lander and will recover the tubes full of Martian soil that were previously collected by the Mars 2020 rover.

It is hoped the mission will enable scientists to better understand the red planet.

the signing ceremony at Farnborough International Airshow – from left: David Parker, ESA Director of Human and Robotic Exploration, Gabriele Pieralli, Managing Director of Leonardo’s Electronics Division (in front), Giorgio Saccoccia, ASI President, and Luigi Pasquali, Space activities coordinator of Leonardo (behind). Photo: Leonardo

“We are very proud to contribute to the success of the Mars Sample Return mission, an ambitious programme and a major international collaboration,” Gabriele Pieralli, managing director of Leonardo’s electronics division, said.

“This contract reinforces our leadership in space robotics, an important underpinning technology for planetary exploration and in in-orbit-servicing operations.

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“This cutting-edge instrument is just one example of Leonardo’s technological excellence in the space domain, which is the reason we are chosen to be on board the major missions to explore the universe, to monitor the health of our planet, and to provide critical navigation and telecommunications services.”

Updated: July 19, 2022, 3:50 PM