A mission to return samples from Mars isn't of much use if they don't actually return, which is why ESA is working on a new robotic rover to retrieve containers of Martian rock and soil left behind by NASA's Mars 2020 rover. ESA has now awarded the initial £3.9 million (US$5.2 million) contract to design the new Fetch rover to Airbus, which will undertake the study in Stevenage, England.

One thing very high on the bucket list of any space scientist is getting one's hands on a sample of Martian soil. Unfortunately, that's one of those things that's easier said than done. Just getting to Mars is still one of the most challenging of space missions, but collecting samples and then returning them to Earth is a quantum leap of complexity.

It is in fact three separate missions that all depend on one another. The first will be NASA's Mars 2020 rover, which is scheduled to lift off in July 2020 atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral. This unmanned nuclear-powered explorer will roam over the Martian landscape much like the Curiosity rover that it's based on. The difference is that where Curiosity does all its analysis using its onboard laboratories, Mars 2020 will collect samples and drop them along the way inside of 36 pen-sized metal containers.

The second mission, ESA's Fetch, launches in 2026 and is tasked with retracing Mars 2020's path and collect these sample containers, which it will be placed inside a "box of delights." Fetch will then return to its lander, which has a cylinder attached to it that contains a Mars Ascent Vehicle. After the box is installed in the rocket, the latter will blast off into orbit around Mars.

If all goes well, a third mission, ESA's Earth Return Orbiter, will be on station to collect the samples and seal them away inside an armored, biologically isolated container to protect it on the trip back to Earth. The purpose of the container is to make sure that the samples not only survive, but that the samples will neither be contaminated by Earth microbes or the Earth by any microbes it might contain. The samples will land somewhere in the United States by 2030 before being distributed to laboratories throughout the world.

"This remarkable new project, which will see samples brought back from Mars to Earth for the first time ever, demonstrates Britain's world-leading scientific and engineering innovation," says Britain's Science Minister Sam Gyimah. Winning this contract builds on the UK's world-renowned expertise in space and robotics which the government is supporting through the UK Space Agency and the major investments in our modern Industrial Strategy.

"One rover bound for Mars in 2020 is already under construction by Airbus in Stevenage and the knowledge and expertise honed there will now be applied to designing this new mission, which aims to safely deliver – for the first time – material to Earth from another planet."

The video below outlines the sample return missions.

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