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A helping hand for Mars missions… a robotic arm that collects “precious samples”

The mission to return Mars samples to Earth will see a 2.5-meter European robotic arm pick up tubes filled with precious soil and transfer them to a rocket.

The advanced robot, known as the Sample Transfer Arm or STA, will play an important role in the success of the Mars sample return campaign, a joint effort by NASA and the European Space Agency aims to return Mars samples to the best laboratories on our planet by 2033.

The robotic arm will land on the surface of Mars to retrieve tube samples that NASA’s current Prospect Rover is collecting from the surface, and it is capable of “seeing” and “feeling” and making independent decisions, as it can locate, capture and transport the tubes.

Only after the robot closes the container’s lid will the Martian samples be launched to rendezvous with the Re-Sampling Earth Vehicle (ERO) and return the material to Earth.

“Dealing with and preparing precious Martian samples for delivery on an extraordinary journey from Mars to Earth is a remarkable feat,” said David Parker, Director of Human and Robotic Exploration at the European Space Agency, in a report published on the agency’s official website on Tuesday.

After the successful study and prototyping phase, the Italian airline Leonardo will design, manufacture, integrate and test the sample transfer arm.

“From its inception to the first movements on Mars, this robotic arm is a testament to the vast amount of experience and knowledge we have in Europe, and the sample transfer arm will be the helping hand that will take planetary science to a new level,” Parker adds.

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The sample transfer arm is a jewel in the crown of space robots, and is designed to be highly autonomous and robust.

Its architecture mimics a human arm with a shoulder, elbow and wrist, and it has a mind and two eyes, and the robot can perform a wide range of movements.

A high level of dexterity allows the arm to extract tubes from the rover, pick them up from the Martian land, insert them into a container and close the lid before lifting from Mars.

The robot has two cameras and a myriad of sensors to determine the best course of action and coordinate movements accordingly. Challenges related to the harsh Martian environment, such as heavy dust and extreme temperatures (-130°C / +70°C) will be taken into account during the design and construction of the robotic arm.

On Tuesday at the Farnborough International Airshow, the European Space Agency signed a contract with Leonardo to design, manufacture, integrate and test the sample transfer arm for the Mars Sample Return Program.

Leonardo leads a European industrial association with companies from Spain, France, Romania, Denmark, Greece, Switzerland and the Czech Republic.

The Italian Space Agency (ASI) has supported the project from the start. “Our investments today allow us to confirm the leading role that Italy will play in Mars exploration and, in particular, in the Mars sample return programme,” said Giorgio Sacuccia, head of the agency.

“This contract reinforces our leadership in space robotics, an important technology for planetary exploration and orbital operations,” says Gabriel Pierali, Leonardo’s Managing Director of Electronics.