Leonardo signs with ESA for a robotic arm that will help bring samples of the Red Planet to Earth

(To Leonardo)
19/07/22

A 2,5 meter long robotic arm will land on the Red Planet by the end of the decade to bring, for the first time in history, samples of the soil of Mars to Earth: Leonardo signed today, at the Farnborough International Airshow, a contract with the European Space Agency (ESA) to design, produce, integrate and test the Sample Transfer Arm for the program Mars sample return, led by NASA in collaboration with ESA.

After the success of the study and prototyping phase, Leonardo, at the head of a European consortium, will now be responsible for the development of the system up to the first operations on Mars. With delivery scheduled for 2025, the robotic arm will be installed on NASA's Sample Retrieval Lander to retrieve the test tubes containing the Martian soil collected by the Mars 2020 mission rover and deposit them in the container that will then be returned to Earth. This will allow, upon returning to Earth, to analyze the samples in the most sophisticated laboratories and conduct unprecedented studies on the Red Planet.

“We are very proud to be able to contribute to the success of Mars Sample Return, a very ambitious program and the result of an important international collaboration. This contract confirms our leadership in space robotics, a core competence in planetary exploration and in orbit operations " said Gabriele Pieralli, Managing Director of Leonardo's Electronics Division. "This cutting-edge tool is just one example of Leonardo's technological excellence, which allows us to be on board the main missions to explore the universe, provide navigation and telecommunication services and monitor the health of our planet".

Il Sample Transfer Arm it is a real gem of space robotics: highly reliable, autonomous and robust. Structured like a human arm with "shoulder", "elbow" and "wrist", it can perform a large number of movements (7 degrees of freedom) and has its own "brain" and "eyes". Controlled by the control electronics, the limbs, joints and the "hand" (end-effector) are able to perform, with a high level of dexterity, all the tasks required by the mission, such as identifying and extracting the test tubes from the rover or lift them off the ground, place them in the container and close its lid before being launched from Mars. Together with its vision system consisting of two cameras, the instrument receives information from the sensors and sends instructions through approximately 600 signals to the mechanisms. This architecture allows the "brain" of the system to autonomously process the best decisions and coordinate movements. Sophisticated robotics and mechatronics algorithms are incorporated into the software, to manage even the maneuvers of "Collision avoidance" and avoid any impact with the lander or the surrounding environment. The extremely challenging conditions of the Martian environment, such as the presence of dust and extreme temperatures (-130 ° C / + 70 ° C), will be taken into consideration during the design and construction of the arm.

David Parker, ESA's Director of Human Exploration and Robotics, said: "From birth to the first moves on Mars, this robotic arm is a testament to the high experience and know-how we have in Europe. The Sample Transfer Arm will be the hand that will take planetary science to a new level. Martian soil samples and preparing them for delivery on a fascinating journey from Mars to Earth is an extraordinary feat. ".

The Italian Space Agency (ASI) supported the entire project as an integral part of the roadmap that, over the last twenty years, has led the national industry to be among the leaders in space robotics for exploration.

Giorgio Saccoccia, President of ASI, declared “Robotic exploration has always been one of the pillars of the Italian Space Agency's activities. The investments made in the recent past by ASI have led to a significant growth in national skills and capabilities, and today allow us to affirm the leading role that Italy will have in the exploration of Mars and, in particular, in the implementation of the Mars mission. Sample Return. The contract signed today marks a new success for the Italian industrial chain which is confirmed as an international reference in exploration missions and, in this case in particular, in the challenging and innovative sector of robotic technologies ".