Leonardo's contribution to the Mars Sample Return programme on Mars

25 February 2021

Leonardo’s technology will help NASA collect Earth Martian soil samples

Launched on 30 July 2020 with an Atlas V rocket from NASA's Cape Canaveral base in Florida, the Perseverance rover of NASA's Mars 2020 mission, part of the ambitious Mars Sample Return programme, reached the Red Planet on 18th February 2021, after a journey of 480 million kilometers. The most delicate but most exciting part of the mission, described as the ‘seven minutes of terror’, was the entry of the descent module into the rarefied Martian atmosphere until a “flying Sky” crane gently deposited Perseverance on its six wheels into the Jazero crater, a former lake which is now dried up.

The rover will scour Mars in the coming years to collect soil samples that, for the first time in history, will be carried back to Earth, where they will be studied and analysed in order to understand if Martian life ever existed. This project will be completed with two other missions where Italy will play an important role.

Perseverance will gather Mars soil samples in test tubes that will be left on the ground. A second NASA mission in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA), in 2026, will recover them. This follow-up mission’s task will be completed thanks to two advanced robotic arms with high-tech mechatronics and flexible control structures, which will be engineered by Leonardo at its Nerviano (MI) plant. Leonardo is a leader in space robotics thanks to the support provided by ASI, the Italian Space Agency.

The two arms will have different functions and structures. The first, smaller and agile (with 6 degrees of movement and an extension of up to 110 cm), will be installed on ESA’s Sample Fetch Rover, which will use a ‘gripper’ to collect the soil containers. The second and stronger arm (with 7 degrees of movement and an extension of over 2 meters), will be placed on NASA’s Sample Retrieval Lander to move containers from the rover to the capsule, which will then be launched into Mars’s orbit.

The arms that Leonardo is developing are ‘jewels’ of robotics and mechatronics, that can operate autonomously (the delay of up to about 20 minutes of communications between Earth and Mars would not allow the arms to be managed in real time), identify containers with Martian soil, and choose the best trajectory to collect and place them in the binder, ready to handle any unexpected problems.

The container with Mars soil will be sent in orbit with a small rocket and will then be captured by another spacecraft, the Earth Return Orbiter, for the third mission that will carry the samples back to Earth.

Italy will play an important role through Thales Alenia Space, (a joint venture between Thales (67%) and Leonardo (33%)), which is providing communication systems which will enable data transmission between Earth, the Orbiter and Mars, and develop the Orbit Insertion Module.

Roughly the size of an SUV, and powered by radioisotopes, Perseverance was also carrying a small helicopter, Ingenuity, when it landed. This will be the first aircraft to fly in the atmosphere of another planet, equipped with microphones to listen to the sounds of Mars.