The European Space Agency (ESA) is building a 2.5-meter-long robotic arm for the mission to return martian samples back to Earth. As a part of the mission, a joint venture between NASA and ESA, the robotic arm will pick up tubes filled with precious soil from Mars and transfer them to a rocket for a historic interplanetary delivery.
ESA says the sophisticated robot, known as the Sample Transfer Arm (STA), will play a crucial role in the success of the Mars Sample Return campaign.
The robot arm is conceived to be autonomous and can perform a large range of movements with seven degrees of freedom. It features two cameras, a myriad of sensors, and a gripper – akin to a hand – that can capture and handle the sample tubes at different angles.
The Sample Transfer Arm will land on Mars to retrieve the sample tubes NASA’s Perseverance rover is currently collecting from the surface. Perseverance has brought to Mars 43 6-inch-long (15.2 centimeters) titanium tubes, 38 of which will be filled with samples of Martian dust, dirt, and rock. The remaining five are “witness tubes” designed to document the cleanliness of its sampling system throughout the mission.
The arm is able to see, feel, and make autonomous decisions. Its high level of dexterity allows the arm to extract the tubes from the rover, pick them up from the martian ground, insert them into a container and close the lid before lifting off from Mars.
ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) will rendezvous with the container filled with martian samples and bring the material back to Earth. The joint endeavor between NASA and ESA aims to bring back martian samples to the best labs on our planet by 2033 – a mere decade away. The entire architecture for the sample return mission is not yet finalized, but it is surely one of the most ambitious missions ever attempted.