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Fetch rover! Robot to retrieve Mars rocks

The European Space Agency is issuing contracts to industry to spec the technology needed for what will be a complex joint undertaking with the US.

The fetch rover would look something like this


UK engineers will design a robot that can retrieve rock samples on Mars so they can be sent to Earth for study.

The European Space Agency is issuing contracts to industry to spec the technology needed for what will be a complex joint undertaking with the US.

Aerospace giant Airbus will scope the concept for a surface "fetch rover" at its Stevenage centre north of London.

Esa and the American space agency (Nasa) expect to send the sample-return equipment to the Red Planet in 2026.

"It will be a relatively small rover - about 130kg; but the requirements are very demanding," said Ben Boyes who will lead the feasibility team at Airbus.

"The vehicle will have to cover large distances using a high degree of autonomy, planning its own path ahead day after day," he told BBC News.

Esa and Nasa signed a letter of intent in April committing themselves to bringing back pieces of Martian rock and soil to Earth before the end of the next decade.

It will be a daring venture that will be done in stages and take several years to complete.

*Agencies aim to bring back rocks from Mars
*Europe's Mars rover takes shape
*Sky At Night: Mars - Red and Dead?

How is the plan shaping up?

Nasa will send a rover to Mars in 2020. This will search for interesting materials, drilling and scooping them from the surface and caching them in canisters. These will be dropped at various depot points. There could be 30-plus of these pen-sized tubes awaiting pick-up.

In 2026, the recovery mission will be launched. The Americans will land an "ascent vehicle" (essentially a rocket) on Mars together with the European fetch rover. The latter will trundle off to find and gather up the canisters, delivering them back to the rocket.

Within roughly 150 days, the space agencies want the canisters lifted off Mars by the ascent vehicle. It will rendezvous with a European orbiter that will take charge of the samples and carry them to Earth. A descent capsule will bring down the precious cargo somewhere over the US.

This "architecture" is still being worked on, and the technologies have to be shown to be achievable. So, the concepts will likely evolve, as could the timing of the different stages. The agencies might stretch the schedules to spread out what will be a considerable financial cost.

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