ESA’s Rover Leading the Charge

23rd Jul 2023
ESA’s Rover Leading the Charge

The European rover, originally intended for a Martian journey, is now revealing insights that will guide future Solar System exploration missions. In June, a collaborative effort between ESA and Airbus conducted a test campaign emulating the operations of the Sample Fetch Rover, which was eventually removed from the Mars Sample Return campaign.

Credit: ESA

Initially, the ambitious plan involved the rover traversing the Red Planet to collect sample tubes dropped by NASA’s Perseverance rover. Equipped with a lightweight robotic arm, the European rover would have gathered these tubes and delivered them to a lander for the journey back to Earth.

During the test campaign, an enhanced version of the Sample Fetch Rover’s acquisition system was utilized to autonomously mimic the process of fetching sample tubes, from detection to storage. The test encompassed all the necessary hardware and software that would have been used in this phase of the Mars Sample Return campaign.

A trio of high-definition cameras was employed, mounted on a mast and the prototype’s wrist, working in harmony to detect and identify sample tubes. Once the system determined the tube’s location and orientation, a robotic arm with a gripper deftly retrieved it, and the acquisition was visually confirmed before safely storing the tube in a tray.

Despite encountering some failures during the test, the team perceived them as valuable opportunities to learn and bridge technological gaps. Martín Azkárate, an ESA robot navigation system engineer, emphasized that these failures improve the system’s robustness and push the boundaries of the state-of-the-art technology.

Though the Sample Fetch Rover won’t embark on its Martian adventure, ESA aims to showcase the robotic technologies developed during the project. Capitalizing on years of design work, these advancements hold significant potential for future Moon, Mars, and beyond exploration missions, according to Pantelis Poulakis, who is poised to lead the ESA Sample Transfer Arm project.

Next on the agenda is integrating the Robotic Acquisition System Breadboard testbed with Airbus’s Field Trial Rover System. This collaboration will create the newest integrated rover breadboard, blending autonomous rover navigation and sample fetching, expected to take place later this year.

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