Thanks to devices like the Perseverance rover, we’ve collected and analyzed a ton of samples from the Martian surface. But zero of those samples have returned to Earth. Now, NASA and the ESA are showing off a solution to this conundrum—a giant robot arm.
This is funny, but it might just work. The ESA’s Sample Transfer Arm (STA) uses two cameras and a range of sensors to carefully retrieve small items. Its primary job is to pull the sample tubes out of the Perseverance rover, though it will also retrieve any samples left on the ground by NASA’s Ingenuity helicopters.
The STA will place these samples into a Mars Ascent Vehicle, which will lift off from the surface to meet the ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter. As the name implies, this orbiter will return the samples to our planet for study.
At the time of writing, humans have only collected samples from four celestial bodies—the moon, two asteroids, and a comet. Mars will be the fifth on our list, assuming that this mission is successful. If the mission is a failure, we’ll have to wait a few years for a do-over.
Of course, NASA and the ESA don’t expect to complete this mission until 2023. The Earth Return Orbiter should launch around 2027, while the Sample Retrieval Arm will ship out a year later.