Artist’s impression of the elements required for a Mars Sample Return mission including the NASA’s Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), the European Space Agency’s Earth Return Orbiter, the Mars sample canister and the Earth entry capsule.
Credit: ESA/ATG Medialab


The European Space Agency (ESA) is working with NASA to explore mission concepts for an international Mars Sample Return campaign between 2020 and 2030.

As a first step, however, a key objective of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission is to rigorously document and store a set of samples in canisters in strategic areas to be retrieved later for flight to Earth.

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will collect and cache samples for later retrieval.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Fetch rover

The next step would involve a NASA launch sending a Sample Retrieval Lander mission to place a platform near the Mars 2020 site. At that location, a small ESA rover – the Sample Fetch Rover – would wheel out to retrieve the cached samples.

Once that robot has collected the specimens — in what can be likened to an interplanetary treasure hunt — it rolls back to the lander platform and loads the Mars collectibles into a single large canister on a Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV).

The MAV is designed to perform the first liftoff from Mars and carry the container into Mars orbit.

Artist’s impression of ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter.
Credit: ESA/ATG Medialab

Sample container

ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter will be the next mission, timed to capture the basketball-size sample container orbiting Mars. The samples will be sealed in a biocontainment system to prevent contaminating Earth with unsterilized material before being moved into an Earth entry capsule.

The spacecraft will then return to Earth, where it will release the entry capsule for the samples to end up in a specialized handling facility.

Artist’s impression of ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter and Mars sample container over Earth.
Credit: ESA/ATG Medialab

ESA and NASA are exploring the concepts for the international Mars Sample Return campaign, with ESA assessing the Sample Fetch Rover and Earth Return Orbiter. This decision-making is to provide input to ESA’s 2019 council at ministerial level, where approval will be sought for the missions.

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