Airbus-France is to build the first "interplanetary" cargo ship to bring the first Martian rock samples back to Earth in a joint project between Europe and the United States that is expected to take just more than a decade to complete.
The Earth Return Orbiter, or ERO, is a giant satellite that will collect samples drilled on Mars by the rover Perseverance, which was launched on Thursday by the United States' National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA.
It will be the Airbus satellite's job to grab the packaged samples and then ship them back to Earth, with the hope that they will arrive by 2031. The six-wheeled Perseverancerover will store its samples in protective tubes.
If all goes well, the separate fetch rover, built by the ESA and due to be launched from Earth in 2026, will then gather up to 36 of these tubes and launch them into space via a rocket.
The samples will then be intercepted by the giant ERO satellite and then carried back to Earth for analysis by scientists. The ultimate aim is to prove that ancient microbial life existed on Mars billions of years ago.