Two Directions for Sample Return Mission

by Fraser Cain on April 5, 2004

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Image credit: EADS
Following award of the ?600k study contract by ESA, EADS Space has made significant progress in completing the first definition of a European Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission. While EADS Astrium is defining the overall mission and the spacecraft, EADS Space Transportation is responsible for the re-entry systems and a ‘Mars Ascent Vehicle’ – a small rocket to carry the precious sample up through the Martian atmosphere.

The team at EADS Astrium, Stevenage is currently preparing for the Mid Term Review where two very different designs will have to be reduced to one.

In the first concept the launch vehicle lifts the sample from the surface of Mars and docks with the Earth Return Vehicle. In the second concept the launch vehicle releases the sample container into a low Mars orbit and the Earth Return Vehicle uses a capture mechanism to perform the rendezvous. The selection of the rendezvous concept has a significant impact on the overall mass, cost and complexity of the mission.

Marie-Claire Perkinson, Senior Systems Engineer at EADS Astrium, Stevenage, leading the study said. “Our industrial team, which includes EADS Space in France; Galileo Avionica in Italy, Sener in Spain and Utopia Consultancies in Germany has done a great job so far in proposing the two exciting concepts. We now have to select the best solution and then, once ESA has raised the appropriate support and funds for the implementation of the mission, launch could be as early as 2011.”

European astronauts may land on Mars one day, but getting them there and safely returning them to Earth will involve many steps and numerous technical challenges in propulsion, structures, computers and software. It will require sophisticated spacecraft to escape from Earth’s orbit; fly to Mars, survive atmospheric entry and landing; operate on the surface; take-off; return to Earth and then finally get the crew back on terra firma. Long before this can be accomplished some key technologies must be demonstrated. The best way to do this is to fly a robotic mission with a scaled-down version of the eventual manned mission.

This is exactly the goal of Mars Sample Return, the second flagship mission of the European Space Agency’s Aurora planetary exploration initiative and one of the most eagerly awaited future space missions for the planetary scientists.

Because Martian winds have transported dust across the planet’s surface over millions of years, the MSR sample could include particles from many different sources, representing a wide variety of rock types and ages, like grains of sand on a beach. Each granule could offer completely different insights into the rich geologic past of the Red Planet. Scientists could now “look at the sample as if each grain were a rock,” said Professor Colin Pillinger of the Open University. This would build on the decades of research already carried out on lunar rock samples.

EADS Space has used its unique heritage in building launch vehicles, planetary spacecraft and re-entry systems, combined with a deep understanding of the science goals to win the ESA mission study. ESA’s Aurora Project Manager Bruno Gardini said “The Mars Sample Return mission is one of the most challenging missions ever considered by ESA. Not only does it include many new technologies and four or five different spacecraft, but it is also a mission of tremendous scientific importance and the first robotic mission with a similar profile to a possible human expedition to Mars.”

Original Source: RAS News Release

About 

Fraser Cain is the publisher of Universe Today. He's also the co-host of Astronomy Cast with Dr. Pamela Gay.

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