Aerospace company Airbus and the European Space Agency have signed a £3.9m contract to develop a rover that will collect samples from the surface of Mars.

The samples will be brought back to Earth to be analysed; in a ‘first’ for space exploration that could alter our knowledge of outer space.

UK engineers will work on the concept in Airbus’s base in Stevenage, just North of London.

The partnership was announced by British astronaut Tim Peake and Sam Gyimah, the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, as well as organisations from the Harwell Space Cluster.

Tim Peake said: “This is an exciting new era where businesses and space agencies are working closer than ever before on ambitious missions to expand our knowledge of the Solar System and deliver benefits to people’s lives.

“The close collaboration between the UK and the European Space Agency will place Britain at the forefront of innovative missions to explore the Moon, Mars and beyond.”

Sam Gyimah continued: “The innovation we see in the UK space industry is enabled through collaboration and partnerships between industry, agencies and academia, and Harwell Space Cluster clearly demonstrates the great work going on in this sector.

“Through our modern Industrial Strategy, we want to see more innovation, collaboration and disruption and by investing 2.4% of our GDP on R&D by 2027 we will continue to be a world leader in the development of space technology.”

Airbus has been given the go ahead to design a concept vehicle capable of retrieving Martian samples. First, the (already finalised) 2020 Mars rover will drill for and scoop up soil samples, transfer them in small containers, and place them at pick-up points.

Then, six years later if all goes to plan, the 130kg fetch rover will land on Mars along with an ascent vehicle. The rover will pick up the deposited canisters and bring them back to the ascent vehicle, which will then leave mars and return to Earth with the soil samples.

This is no easy feat; the fetch rover must be able to cover large distances using a high degree of autonomy, planning its own path ahead day after day, Ben Boyes, leader of the feasibility team at Airbus, told the BBC.

Companies such as Rezatec, Oxford Space Systems, Deimos, Lockheed Martin and Neptec, the UK Space Agency and the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s RAL Space facility, were all present for the announcement.

They are also all based at Harwell Campus, as members of a rapidly growing 80-strong group of private, public and academic organisations that form the Harwell Space Cluster. The aim of the group is to help the UK grab 10% of the global share of the space sector by 2030.

Dr Barbara Ghinelli, director at Harwell Campus, commented on the need for collaboration: “Space companies at Harwell thrive in an entrepreneurial ecosystem that promotes growth and the commercialisation of new ideas. This is also true of companies in our Life Sciences and Energy clusters.

“Clusters facilitate communication between organisations, pooling resources for collaborative projects and sharing risk, as well as providing common support services at scale and thus increasing productivity – ultimately resulting in economic growth,” she added.

Scientists have said some of the most pressing questions about Mars, such as whether it can, or ever has, hosted life, can only be answered by analysing rocks from its surface.

UK SpaceTech

This comes at a time where the UK space industry is growing. Figures from Harwell Campus show that it is worth £13.7bn to the economy and employs more than 38,000 people across the country. From small satellite technology and telecommunications to robotics and earth observation, innovative technology is evolving and simultaneously reducing the cost of space exploration.

This is the UK’s chance to thrive in the commercial space age, with Oxford Space Systems’ (OSS) £6.7m funding raise in June being just one example of successful investments in UK companies. OSS builds SpaceTech, including deployable antennas and panel systems, that are lighter, less complex and costly than those that are currently available – according to the firm.

Specialist investor Seraphim Capital also claims to be the world’s first venture fund dedicated to financing the growth of companies operating in the space ecosystem. The company invests in startups that are transforming global industries through the generation, enhancement and application of satellite and drone enabled data.

It has recently launched SpaceCamp, an accelerator which will support the growth of six startups in the SpaceTech space during its first cohort, including QuadSATTesseractEarth Rover and Global Surface Intelligence.