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The Mars robotic arm, built with Romanian contribution

on 03 August 2022

When the first samples from another planet will have arrived on Earth, in 2033, Romania would have been part of this historic Mars mission by NASA and ESA. Romanian specialists will contribute to one of the most sophisticated and advanced space robots — a robotic arm that will be used to transfer Mars samples of rock and dust to Earth and answer the question: was there life on Mars?

The Mars Sample Return mission is a highly ambitious one. Its architecture involves three rocket launches from Earth, a first-of-its-kind launch from another planet and a space capsule that will bring samples from Mars back to Earth. These will be studied in the world's most advanced laboratories, with complex cutting-edge technologies.

ESA’s robotic Sample Transfer Arm (STA) will play a key role in the mission. It will be launched to Mars in the second half of this decade and will land near the location of the American Perseverance rover, which is currently collecting samples from Mars. Able to “see”, “feel” and take autonomous decisions, the Sample Transfer Arm will identify, pick up and transfer the sample tubes into a container that will be launched on the orbit of Mars by the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV). The container will be then picked up by a spacecraft developed in Europe, and transported to Earth.

The Sample Transfer Arm is a jewel-in-the-crown of space robotics. It is conceived to be autonomous, highly reliable and robust. Its architecture mimics a human arm with a shoulder, elbow and wrist, and has its own built-in brain and eyes. The robot can perform a large range of movements with seven degrees of freedom.

Romania will contribute to this cutting-edge European space technology. Romanian experts will contribute to getting the robotic arm safely to Mars and ensuring that it correctly "sees" and understands reality.

COMOTI — keeping the robotic arm safe

The Romanian Research and Development Institute for Gas Turbines COMOTI is responsible for the development of critical equipment for the Mars Sample Return mission — the Hold Down Release Mechanism (HDRM), a technology that will fly to Mars.

The HDRMs will fix and ensure the European robotic arm (Sample Transfer Arm) on the NASA Sample Retrieval Lander during launch from Earth, journey to Mars and landing on the red planet. They will protect the robotic arm from deteriorating as a result of the mechanical loads and shocks specific to the launch phase, or the thermal expansion that results from exposure to a wide range of temperatures. Once on Mars, the mechanism will set the robotic arm free so that it can start its mission.

The complexity of the robotic arm — due to its 7 degrees of freedom, a length up to 2,5 metres and a mass over 35 kg — makes the mechanism itself complex and vital for the mission. The three HDRMs will be fully developed in Romania, from design to production and testing of several experimental models and in the end the flight hardware, which will be the first equipment developed by COMOTI to fly to space in a planetary exploration mission — standing proof of Romania’s growing technological maturity in the space sector.

The mechanism will have a mechanical interface with the robotic arm, developed by the Italian company Leonardo, as well as with the NASA lander, developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). This will offer the Romanian team the opportunity to work with both European and American partners. The COMOTI team will also participate in the integration phase of their mechanisms on the robotic arm in Italy and on the NASA lander in the USA, another unique opportunity to transfer knowledge from ESA and NASA to Romania.

GMV Romania —  testing the viability of the Robotic arm

GMV România has the task to validate — on the ground, before launch — all operations, movements and sensor-collected data of the robotic arm developed by Italian company, Leonardo. To achieve this, the Romanian team will develop three sets of Electronic Ground Support Equipment (EGSE). Two of them will be sent to Italy at Leonardo’s facilities and another one will be delivered directly to NASA JPL, in the USA, for final checks before launch.

GMV România is also supporting the development of the Perception Unit, whose development is coordinated by GMV Spain — an electronic unit that plays a very important role in manoeuvring the robotic arm. Several cameras are placed in this box, which are conveying data to the arm’s algorithms so that it can recognise the samples and safely pick them up. GMV România is supporting the structural and mechanical design activities for the Perception Unit, which are developed by a group of sub-contractors from several countries. The team in România is also helping colleagues in Spain with the development of the algorithms that will help the robotic arm “see” its surroundings.

Robotic exploration — a priority for ROSA

“The contribution of the Romanian industry and research community to this pioneering NASA-ESA mission is a direct result of ROSA's efforts to promote the development in Romania of capabilities relevant for planetary exploration missions. We supported Romania's participation in the European Space Agency's optional programme for robotic and human exploration precisely to give Romanian space actors the chance to participate in ESA projects in this field, to increase their technological maturity and to exchange knowledge between Romanian specialists and those from Europe and even the United States. Therefore, within the Mars Sample Return mission, equipment developed entirely in Romania will go to Mars, playing an important role for the smooth running of the mission," said Dr. Phys. Marius-Ioan Piso, President of the Romanian Space Agency (ROSA).

Led by Leondaro, the European industrial consortium involved in building the arm gathers companies from Spain, France, Romania, Denmark, Greece, Switzerland and the Czech Republic to design, manufacture, integrate and test the Sample Transfer Arm.

How the Mars Sample Return mission will unfold

Having landed on Mars last year, the Perseverance rover is collecting various samples from the planet. An upcoming launch from Earth, currently scheduled for 2027, will send a platform destined to collect the samples (Sample Retrieval Lander), along with a robotic arm to help handle the samples and two helicopters similar to Ingenuity, as was announced on 27 July 2022. Ingenuity has already proved its efficiency and survived over a year beyond its original planned lifetime.

The two helicopters will provide a secondary capability to retrieve samples cached on the surface of Mars and bring them to the Sample Retrieval Lander. This task, however, will be mainly carried out by Perseverance. At this point, the ESA built robotic arm — the Sample Transfer Arm (STA) — will play a key role. The arm will transfer the sample canisters into the first rocket fired off from another planet – the Mars Ascent Vehicle.

While carrying the samples, the spacecraft will rendezvous in orbit with the European Earth Return Orbiter — to be launched in 2028. The martian samples, in a basketball-like container, will be released in space and captured by the ESA orbiter. The Earth Return Orbiter then ferries the cargo back to the vicinity of Earth and safely sends the samples on the ground.

Image credit: Leonardo/Maxon/GMV/ OHB Italia/ SAB Aerospace s.r.o