Sample transfer arm developed by Leonardo

Robot arm to help retrieve Martian samples

Image credit: Leonardo/Maxon/GMV/ OHB Italia/ SAB Aerospace s.r.o

The European Space Agency (ESA) has contracted aerospace company Leonardo to design, build and test a robotic arm intended to retrieve samples of Martian soil collected by Nasa’s Perseverance rover.

The robot, known as the Sample Transfer Arm (STA), is part of a wider joint endeavour between Nasa and ESA called the Mars Sample Return mission, already under way. As of late, Nasa’s rover has drilled eight of an eventual 38 samples of Martian rock and soil.

ESA is currently developing another small rover to retrieve these samples and place them in an ascent vehicle that will carry them into orbit for retrieval and shipping back to Earth via the ESA Earth Return Orbiter.

But ESA’s small rover, the Sample Fetch Rover, needs a sensitive and articulated robotic arm with which to grasp, collect, and transfer the Mars samples once on Mars. This is where the STA comes in.

A European robotic arm for Mars

Image credit: Leonardo/Maxon/GMV/ OHB Italia/ SAB Aerospace s.r.o

“Handling the precious martian samples and getting them ready for delivery on an extraordinary trip from Mars to Earth is an amazing feat,” said David Parker, ESA director of human and robotic exploration.

The 2.5m-long Sample Transfer Arm will possess seven degrees of freedom of movement, mimicking a human arm with shoulder, elbow and wrist joints, according to an ESA announcement.

It will be largely autonomous, using two cameras and sensors to guide itself in removing tubes of sampled material from the Perseverance rover, placing them on the ground, picking them back up, placing them in a container on the ascent vehicle and closing the lid.

“From its inception to the first moves on Mars, this robotic arm is a testament to the enormous amount of expertise and know-how we have in Europe,” Parker added. “The Sample Transfer Arm will be the helping hand that will take planetary science to a new level.”

The Mars Sample return mission aims to return the samples taken by Perseverance to Earth by 2033 where Earth-based labs can examine the material to learn more about the past conditions on Mars, and possibly answer whether the Red Planet ever supported life.

Sample transfer arm being tested on

Image credit: Leonardo/Maxon/GMV/ OHB Italia/ SAB Aerospace s.r.o

ESA signed its contract with Leonardo to design, manufacture, integrate and test the Sample Transfer Arm for the Mars Sample Return programme at the Farnborough International Airshow yesterday (19 July).

Leonardo is leading a European industrial consortium with companies from Spain, France, Romania, Denmark, Greece, Switzerland and the Czech Republic.

The Italian Space Agency (ASI) has supported the project since the beginning. “Our investments allow us today to affirm the leading role that Italy will have in the exploration of Mars and, in particular, in the Mars Sample Return programme,” said ASI’s president Giorgio Saccoccia.

“This contract reinforces our leadership in space robotics, an important technology for planetary exploration and orbital operations,” said Gabriele Pieralli, managing director of Leonardo’s Electronics Division.

In October 2021, Nasa’s Perseverance rover sent back its first images of a 3.7-billion-year-old ancient river delta on Mars that revealed a complex picture of the planet’s now-dried-up water cycle.

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