Mars ascent vehicle
An earlier concept for a Mars ascent vehicle, which would transport samples collected from the Martian surface into orbit. Those samples would be returned to Earth by another spacecraft. NASA/JPL-Caltech

WASHINGTON — The European Space Agency awarded two contracts to Airbus to study elements of a Mars sample return approach as the outlines of international cooperation with NASA on that effort materialize.

Airbus announced July 6 that it received two study contracts from ESA regarding Mars sample return mission concepts. Those studies include a rover to collect samples and an orbiter to return those samples to Earth.

The Mars Sample Fetch Rover, as conceived by ESA, would launch to Mars in 2026 on a NASA lander mission. It would use a robotic arm to gather samples cached by NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission, returning those samples to the lander and loading them into a NASA-provided rocket known as a Mars Ascent Vehicle that will launch them into Mars orbit.

The Earth Return Orbiter would rendezvous with the sample contained in Mars orbit. The orbiter would place the sample inside a biocontainment system in a reentry capsule for return to Earth by the end of the 2020s.

The proposed missions align with a “joint statement of intent” signed by Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, and David Parker, director of human and robotic exploration programs at ESA, in April. The two agreed to “develop a joint MSR [Mars Sample Return] plan and to complete the studies needed to reach the level of technical and programmatic maturity required to pursue an effective MSR partnership.”

That agreement specifically identified ESA as providing the Sample Fetch Rover and its robotic arm as part of the NASA-led lander mission, as well as lead the Earth Return Orbiter. NASA would provide a sample capture, handling and containment system for the orbiter as well as the reentry vehicle.

“Bringing samples back from Mars is essential in more than one way,” Parker said in a statement, citing the scientific importance of returning samples from Mars for study in terrestrial laboratories, as well as their usefulness in planning future human missions. “I am very pleased that with these two studies now being commissioned and in combination with other studies conducted elsewhere in Europe we make another important step to explore Mars.”

Airbus said in the statement that it expected ESA to make decisions on any role it would play in a Mars sample return mission at the agency’s next ministerial meeting in late 2019. Zurbuchen offered a similar timeline last month. “The first time we’re really going to start tying up things, really making decisions because we have parallel joint investigations going on in Europe as well, is late ’19,” he said at a June 8 Space Transportation Association luncheon here.

At a July 2 meeting of NASA’s Planetary Science Advisory Committee, Jim Watzin, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, argued that NASA, in cooperation with ESA, was ready to attempt sample return, a long-term goal of the Mars science community. Most of the technology required for that set of missions is now mature, he said, with development work ongoing on areas that still require work, like the ascent vehicle.

“The technologies have matured to the point that we can do this affordably,” he said at the meeting. The missions, he said, will be cost-capped, although he did not disclose the expected cap, and added the agencies would seek to avoid adding additional science objective beyond returning the samples. “The emphasis is on ensuring affordability.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...