The Mars Sample Return Program is a bold plan to deliver precious samples of Martian soil back to Earth without human intervention. A part of the plan includes a roughly 8.2-foot-long (2.5 meters) robotic arm that will deliver tubes full of Martian soil to a rocket for delivery back to Earth.
The Mars Sample Return Program is a joint venture between NASA and ESA, with the latter providing the mission’s Sample Transfer Arm. According to ESA, the arm is autonomous and features a suite of sensors, two cameras, and a gripper to help pick up and deliver sample capsules.
NASA’s Perseverance rover has been collecting samples and dropping some of them onto the surface. The Sample Transfer Arm is slated to pluck those sample tubes out of the rover’s carousel and deliver them to a spacecraft called the Mars Ascent Vehicle. Europe’s robotic arm will also pick up some samples off the ground, which will have been dropped off near the lander by Ingenuity-class helicopters. Yes, seriously—this mission is going to be truly wild.
ESA’s newly released video shows the robotic arm extending out from NASA’s Sample Retrieval Lander on the surface of Mars as it grabs a tube containing a Martian surface sample. The arm then grabs the top of the tube and slides it into the cache of other samples in NASA’s Mars Ascent Vehicle. It’s an elegant piece of choreography that gently deposits some of geology’s most important samples to date, which will culminate in the Mars Ascent Vehicle launching into space to rendezvous with ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter.
NASA and ESA are eying a 2027 launch for the Earth Return Orbiter and a 2028 launch for the Sample Retrieval Lander. After the Mars Ascent Vehicle meets up with the Earth Return Orbiter, NASA and ESA hope to have the samples back on Earth in 2033 for further analysis.
More: NASA and DARPA Collaborating on a Nuclear-Powered Rocket for Quick Trips to Mars