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Leonardo engineering robotic arms for future Mars rovers

February 25, 2021  By Naomi Szeben

NASA’s Perseverance rover reached Mars on February 18, 2021, for the Mars Sample Return program. After what NASA described as ‘seven minutes of terror’, the module successfully descended into Martian atmosphere where it was deposited into a dried, former lake bed.

The rover will scour Mars in the coming years to collect soil samples that will be carried back to Earth, for study and analysis for clues of previous Martian life. This project will be completed with two other missions where Leonardo plays an important role.

Perseverance will gather Mars soil samples in test tubes that will be left on the planet’s surface. A second NASA mission in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA), in 2026, will recover them. This follow-up mission’s task will be completed thanks to two  robotic arms with mechatronics and flexible control structures, which will be engineered by Leonardo at its Nerviano (MI) plant. Leonardo contributes to space robotics thanks to the support provided by ASI, the Italian Space Agency.

The two arms will have different functions and structures. The first, smaller and more agile  arm will be installed on ESA’s Sample Fetch Rover, which will use a ‘gripper’ to collect the soil containers. The second and stronger arm (with 7 degrees of movement and an extension of over 2 meters), will be placed on NASA’s Sample Retrieval Lander to move containers from the rover to the capsule, which will then be launched into Mars’s orbit.


The arms that Leonardo is developing can operate autonomously, identify containers with Martian soil, and choose the best trajectory to collect and place them in the binder, and will be ready to handle any unexpected problems. The delay of up to about 20 minutes of communications between Earth and Mars does not allow the arms to be managed in real time.

The container with Mars soil will be sent in orbit with a small rocket and will then be captured by another spacecraft, the Earth Return Orbiter, for the third mission that will carry the samples back to Earth.

Italy will play an important role through Thales Alenia Space, a joint venture between Thales and Leonardo, which provides communication systems that will enable data transmission between Earth, the Orbiter and Mars, and develop the Orbit Insertion Module.

Roughly the size of an SUV, and powered by radioisotopes, Perseverance was also carrying a small helicopter, Ingenuity, when it landed. This will be the first aircraft to fly in the atmosphere of another planet, equipped with microphones to listen to the sounds of Mars.


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