The European Space Agency (ESA) took the opportunity of the International Astronautical Congress IAC 2020 (Online/Cyberspace edition) to announce contracts related to exploration. First out 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 canister launched from the surface of Mars and return it to Earth in 2031.  As part of this contract, a study is being made for a “fetch rover” designed to recover samples collected by the NASA Mars Perseverance Lander and return them to the lander ready for launch in the cannister.

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

Contracts were awarded to Thales Alenia Space for two elements on the NASA-led Lunar Gateway mini-space station. Under a contact valued at €327 million euros  I-Hab – a habitation module will be built by Thales Alenia Space’s Italian division.  Under current plans I-Hab will be launched in 2026 while ESPRIT will be launched in 2027 or before. Although this order is yet to be fully authorised, the French arm of Thales Alenia Space has been given authorisation to proceed with producing the European System Providing Refueling, Infrastructure and Telecommuncations (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 to Thales Alenia Space (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.