Skip to main content

This Mars rover is looking for a new mission

While it must be incredibly exciting for engineers to be given the task of designing, building, and testing a rover destined for another celestial body, imagine the disappointment if those plans suddenly fall through.

That’s exactly what happened to an Airbus team tasked with making a rover for a Mars mission to gather up samples of martian material left for it by NASA’s Perseverance rover as part of a complex process to get the samples to Earth.

Four years after NASA awarded the contract to build the four-wheel Sample Fetch Rover, the agency announced in July that it was no longer needed as the unexpected success of its Ingenuity helicopter, which arrived on the red planet in 2021, had inspired it to set about designing a similar aircraft to perform the same collection task.

Airbus's Sample Fetch Rover and how it might have looked on Mars.
How Airbus’s Sample Fetch Rover might have looked on Mars. Airbus

The decision left Airbus in the unfortunate and rather unusual position of having a finished rover with nowhere to go.

Determined not to give up on the project, the team has recently been testing its rover in a quarry near London, England, while at the same time considering how it might be able to offer the vehicle for another mission.

It’s currently focused on NASA’s upcoming Artemis missions to the moon, which could see the space agency building a moon base to support a permanent human presence on the lunar surface, much in the same way that astronauts today live and work on the International Space Station in low-Earth orbit.

One idea is to modify the design of the rover to make it suitable for specific lunar-based tasks, such as driving astronauts around, or transporting materials for building or tools and instruments for exploration.

But with the Mars environment very different to that of the moon, other kinds of modifications would have to be made, too.

Speaking to the BBC this week, Adam Camilletti, who was on the Airbus rover team in the early stages of the vehicle’s development, pointed out that one of the major challenges would be adapting the rover to cope with troublesome moon dust, which is known to be abrasive and sticky. Other modifications may be necessary to cope with the moon’s atmosphere and gravity, which differs on Mars.

As the team explores how it can adapt the rover for a lunar mission, it’s also looking for an opportunity from NASA or its European counterpart, ESA, that would give it a chance to get it to the moon.

While the research and development that went into building the rover will only have enriched the engineers behind it, they’d love nothing more than to see the fruits their labor one day trundling across the lunar surface as part of a new era of moon exploration. Watch this space.

Editors' Recommendations

Trevor Mogg
Contributing Editor
Not so many moons ago, Trevor moved from one tea-loving island nation that drives on the left (Britain) to another (Japan)…
It’s been 2 years since the Perseverance rover landed on Mars
This image of the floor of Jezero Crater was taken by one of the Navcam imagers aboard NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover on Feb. 5, the 698th Martian day, or sol, of the mission.

Today marks the second anniversary since the rover Perseverance landed on the surface of Mars on February 18, 2021. The nail-biting descent and landing process was followed around the world, and was particularly memorable because of the spectacular video taken from both the rover and its descent stage showing the touchdown onto the red planet.

In the two Earth years since Perseverance arrived on Mars, it has collected samples of rock and built a sample depot, deployed the Mars helicopter Ingenuity, created oxygen from the carbon dioxide atmosphere, recorded the sounds of Mars for the first time, trundled along the floor of the Jezero crater and made its way toward the site of an ancient river delta, and taken some stunning images.

Read more
Perseverance Mars rover shares detailed panorama of sample depot
The site of Perseverance's sample depot.

NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover has been busy creating what the space agency recently said was “humanity’s first sample depot on another planet.”

The depot, which is essentially a flat patch of land, contains 10 titanium tubes holding samples of martian rock and dust collected by NASA’s rover in the two years since it landed on the red planet.

Read more
Mars Curiosity rover finds evidence of water where it was expected to be dry
Curiosity Rover

The key to understanding whether Mars was ever habitable is water. For life as we know it to thrive, liquid water needs to be present -- and we know that even though it is now dry, there was once liquid water on the surface of Mars. However, the history of water on Mars is complex, and scientists are still debating exactly how long water was present there and when the planet dried up.

And it's about to get more complex. Recently, the Curiosity rover has made an intriguing discovery suggesting that water was once present in an area that scientists had thought would be dry.

Read more