This Tuesday, at the Farnborough International Air Show, Leonardo, at the head of a European industrial consortium, signed a contract with ESA to design, manufacture, integrate and test the sample transfer arm for the Mars Sample Return mission. from NASA and ESA, called the Sample Transfer Arm. The Mars Sample Return program is led by NASA in collaboration with ESA.
Able to “see” and make decisions independently, the robotic arm will collect sample tubes filled with Martian soil, support his journey back to Earth. Leonardo’s advanced technologies are on board all major space missions. Space robotics is one of the company’s main areas of expertise: Leonardo has developed numerous arms, drills and sampling systems for planetary exploration.
The mission to return samples from the Martian surface to Earth for the first time will see a 2.5-metre-long robotic arm land on the Red Planet by the end of the decade. After a successful study and prototyping phase, Leonardo will now assume responsibility for the development of the system until its first operations on Mars. Scheduled for delivery in 2025, Leonardo’s robotic arm will be installed on NASA’s sample retrieval lander and will retrieve tubes filled with Martian soil that were previously collected by the Mars 2020 rover. Analyze Earth samples in state-of-the-art laboratories and conduct new research aimed at improving humanity’s understanding of the Red Planet.
“We are very proud to contribute to the success of the Mars Sample Return mission, an ambitious program and an important international collaboration. This contract strengthens our leadership in space robotics, an important core technology for planetary exploration and in-orbit maintenance operations,” said Gabriele Pieralli, CEO of Leonardo’s electronics division. “This state-of-the-art instrument is just one example of Leonardo’s technological excellence in space, which is why we are chosen to participate in major missions to explore the universe, monitor the health of our planet and provide critical navigation and telecommunications services”.
The sample transfer arm is a jewel in the crown of space robotics: autonomous, highly reliable and robust. Its architecture imitates a human arm with “shoulder”, “elbow” and “wrist” and can perform a large number of movements with seven degrees of freedom. Unlike a human arm, the sample transfer arm has its own built-in “brain” and “eyes”.
Managed by control electronics, limbs, joints, and the “hand” (known in rocket science as the “end effector”) can perform all actions required by the mission with a high level of skill. These include identifying and extracting the tubes from the rover, picking them up from the ground, inserting them into the container and closing the lid before lifting off from Mars.
With its vision system made up of two cameras, the instrument receives information from its sensors and sends instructions to the mechanisms via some 600 signals. Such an architecture allows the “brain” of the system to autonomously decide the best course of action and coordinate movements accordingly. Its software includes sophisticated robotic and mechatronic algorithms, which also allow the arm to perform collision avoidance maneuvers to avoid impact with the lander or its surroundings.
The challenges of the harsh Martian environment, such as abundant dust and extreme temperatures (-130°C/+70°C), will be taken into account when designing and building the robotic arm.
David Parker, Director of Human and Robotic Exploration at ESA, assures us that “from its creation to the first movements on Mars, this robotic arm testifies to the enormous experience and expertise we have in Europe. The sample transfer arm will be the outstretched hand that takes planetary science to a new level. Handling the precious Martian samples and preparing them for shipment on an extraordinary journey from Mars to Earth is an incredible feat.”
The whole project was supported by the Italian Space Agency (ASI). Giorgio Saccoccia, President of ASI, said that “robotic exploration has always been one of the pillars of the activities of the Italian Space Agency. The investments made in the recent past by ASI have led to a remarkable growth in national skills and competences and allow us today to affirm the leading role that Italy will have in the exploration of Mars and, in particular, in the implementation of the March sample. Return mission. Today’s contract marks a new success for the Italian industrial chain recognized as a world reference in exploration missions and, in this particular case, in the demanding and innovative sector of robotic technologies”.