Airbus has been selected by the European Space Agency (ESA) to design two elements for a proposed mission to return samples from Mars to Earth by the end of the next decade.

The elements, including a Sample Fetch Rover and an Earth Return Orbiter, will play a critical role in the Mars Sample Return mission, which will be launched by Nasa and the ESA as part of an agreement reached in April.

Scheduled to be launched by 2026, the Mars Sample Fetch will be developed to retrieve samples of Martian soil left behind by Nasa’s Mars 2020 rover.

Mars Sample Fetch will collect the 36 pen-sized sample tubes left by the Nasa rover on the surface of Mars and will load them into a sample container inside the waiting Mars Ascent Vehicle.

“Bringing samples back from Mars is essential in more than one way.”

Once completed, the Mars Ascent Vehicle will then launch from the surface and put the sample container into orbit about Mars.

If everything goes as planned, a third mission, ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter, will capture the basketball-sized sample container orbiting Mars, and will seal it within a biocontainment system before bringing the samples back to Earth.

The samples are expected to land somewhere in the US by the end of 2030 and will be distributed to laboratories across the globe.

ESA Human and Robotic Exploration director David Parker said: “Bringing samples back from Mars is essential in more than one way.

“Firstly to understand why Mars, although it is the planet that is most similar to Earth, took a very different evolutionary path than Earth and secondly to fully comprehend the Martian environment in order to allow humans to one day work and live on the Red Planet.”

The Mars Sample Return mission is scheduled to receive approval at the ESA council next year.