The European Space Agency (ESA) took the opportunity at the International Astronautical Congress IAC 2020 (Online/Cyberspace edition) to announce contracts related to exploration. First out of the bag was the €491 million construction contract awarded to Airbus Defence and Space (Airbus DS) to build the Earth Return Orbiter – a sample return mission to Mars which will be launched in 2026. The spacecraft is designed to receive a NASA rocket-launched cannister from the surface of Mars and return it to Earth in 2031. As part of the contract, a study is also being made of a “fetch rover” to recover samples collected by the NASA Mars Perseverance Lander and return them to the lander ready for launch in the cannister.

Contracts were awarded to Thales Alenia Space (TAS) for two elements of the NASA-led Lunar Gateway mini-space station. Under a contract valued at €327 million, I-Hab, a habitation module, will be built by TAS’s Italian division. According to current plans I-Hab will be launched in 2026. Although this order is yet to be fully authorised, the French arm of TAS has been given authorisation to proceed with producing the European System Providing Refueling, Infrastructure and Telecommunications (ESPRIT) two-element set, the first of which covers telecommunications. This will be launched with the US Power and Propulsion Element in 2023 and will be fitted to the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) module. The second refueling pressurised module will be launched in 2027.

In addition to the above, study contracts were awarded to Airbus DS and TAS for a robotic lander for lunar operations, called the European Large Logistic Lander (EL3), able to carry 1.5 metric tons to the lunar surface.

Artist’s impression of Earth Return Orbiter. Courtesy: Airbus DS