The European Space Agency (ESA) has awarded a contract to aerospace and defence company Airbus for the Mars Sample Return’s (MSR) Earth Return Orbiter (ERO).

The contract is valued at €491m and Airbus will design and construct ERO, which will be the first ever spacecraft to bring samples from Mars to Earth, and the Sample Fetch Rover (SFR).

These will be the two main European elements of MSR, which is a joint campaign undertaken by ESA-NASA, represents the next step in the exploration of Mars.

As part of the contract, Airbus will develop the spacecraft in Toulouse, and carry out mission analysis in Stevenage.

Airbus Space Systems head Jean-Marc Nasr said: “We’re bringing the full force of our experience gained on Rosetta, Mars Express, Venus Express, Gaia, ATV, BepiColombo, and JUICE to ensure this mission succeeds.

“Bringing samples back to Earth from Mars will be an extraordinary feat, taking interplanetary science to a new level and Airbus is excited to take on this challenge as part of this joint international mission.”

ESA will launch the 6t, 6m high spacecraft on board the Ariane 6 in 2026.

The spacecraft is equipped with 144m² solar arrays with a span of over 40m and it will take about a year to reach Mars.

During the five-year mission, the spacecraft will offer communications coverage for the NASA Perseverance Rover and SRL missions.

It will also meet and capture the orbiting samples and bring them safely back to Earth.

Additionally, Thales Alenia Space Turin will be responsible for spacecraft assembling, development of the communication system and providing Orbit Insertion Module.