This robotic arm will help return Martian samples back to Earth

But is biocontamination a possibility?
Loukia Papadopoulos
ESA's Sample Transfer Arm.jpg
ESA's Sample Transfer Arm.


The European Space Agency (ESA) is using a unique robotic arm to bring back Martian samples to Earth, according to a statement by the organization published on Thursday (Jan .26).

“The mission to return Martian samples back to Earth will see a European 2.5 meter-long robotic arm pick up tubes filled with precious soil from Mars and transfer them to a rocket for a historic interplanetary delivery,” noted the press release.

What is the 'Sample Transfer Arm?'

The robot, known as the Sample Transfer Arm or STA, will play a crucial role in the success of the Mars Sample Return campaign. It is described as autonomous, highly reliable and robust making it ideal for its one-of-a-kind mission. 

“The robot can perform a large range of movements with seven degrees of freedom, assisted by two cameras and a myriad of sensors. It features a gripper – akin to a hand – that can capture and handle the sample tubes at different angles,” stated ESA.

The robotic arm is not on Mars just yet. However, ESA reveal that it will soon land on the Red Planet to retrieve the sample tubes NASA’s Perseverance rover is currently collecting from the surface. 

“Able to 'see,' 'feel' and take autonomous decisions, its high level of dexterity allows the arm to extract the tubes from the rover, pick them up from the Martian ground, insert them into a container and close the lid before lifting-off from Mars,” explained ESA.

The Mars Perseverance rover completed a one year anniversary on the Red Planet last February (2022). On February 18, 2021, the spacecraft carrying NASA's $2.7 billion robotic explorer named Perseverance placed the rover gently on the foreign planet. 

The event marked NASA's most enthusiastic and thorough effort in decades to study if there was ever life on the Red Planet. That effort is now being supported through the collection of various samples to be sent back to Earth for further study.

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ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) will meet up with the new robot to collect the containers filled with Martian samples and bring the material back to Earth. The mission is a joint endeavor between NASA and ESA and hopes to have some samples back by at least 2033- a mere decade away.

Is there a possibility of bringing back alien life?

The agencies hope that amongst the samples will be ancient fossilized organisms. They also note that there is a very small probability the samples could contain living organisms. 

This has brought rise to the question of whether it is safe to bring back such organisms to Earth as this increases the potential for biocontamination. Better yet, what about an alien invasion? (OK, perhaps too far there!).

The agencies have stated in the past that the likelihood of bringing living organisms back is almost null and that there is just as much chances that we could contaminate Mars’ pristine untouched environment as there is that Mars would contaminate our planet.

Either way, these are risks the agencies are prepared to take in order to advance our planetary knowledge and the possibility to one day inhabit the Red Planet. In any case, these are exciting times for space exploration.

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