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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.

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