Mars Robotic Exploration Preparation Programme (MREP)

Artist impression of lift-off of ESA's Mars Ascent Vehicle, part of the Mars Sample Return mission

What is it?

The Mars Robotic Exploration Preparation (MREP) is an Optional Programme being implemented in ESA's Directorate of Science and Robotic Exploration and intended to prepare Europe's future contribution to the international exploration of Mars.

ESA and NASA are working together on future Mars missions. The 2016 ExoMars mission comprises two elements: the Trace Gas Orbiter and the Entry, Descent & Landing Demonstrator Module. The life-hunting and subsurface-drilling ExoMars rover will follow two years later. The task of MREP is to define and prepare for the next steps that Europe will take after these missions.

Proceeding in collaboration with NASA and possibly other international partners, the aim is to define and study the future missions to Mars following Exomars, and systematically identify, develop and qualify the required technologies for safely implementing these missions and enabling progressively more ambitious missions to Mars, culminating in a leading ESA role in the acquisition and safe return of Martian samples.

Why is MREP needed?

While the Moon remains the most immediate and accessible target for next-step human exploration, the Earth-like but freeze-dried planet Mars is undoubtedly the single most attractive solar system site for its very wide scientific investigations, in particular the search of current or previous life evidence.

Ongoing robotic exploration has made some tantalising discoveries, but the next major step is to retrieve samples from the Martian surface so they can be analysed in detail in terrestrial laboratories. Many new technologies will be needed to make this happen – some of which have yet to be invented, let along demonstrated and qualified. MREP is needed first to identify and then to develop them.

...the Moon is about a thousand times further away from the Earth than the International Space Station...

ESA has a distinguished history of space science missions, but the demands of Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission mean moving the Agency far out of its technological comfort zone. ESA does not currently have expertise in precision soft-landing probes and operating them on planetary surfaces, identifying and retrieving samples and then – as is a requirement for MSR – having them take off again to dock remotely in Mars orbit. Then there is the difficulty of preserving the samples in pristine condition and getting them safely through re-entry back to the surface of the Earth…,

Plus the sheer distance involved in MSR throws up any number of possible dangers. To give an idea of scale, the Moon is about a thousand times further away from the Earth than the International Space Station, while Mars is about a thousand times further away from the Moon.

Venturing so far away means optimising solar cell performance for lower sunlight levels – or possibly replacing them altogether with novel power systems – while systems will required enhanced radiation protection and high-levels of onboard autonomy to cope with a multi-minute radio time delay due to the distance.

How is MREP being implemented?

The overall programme is built in close collaboration with the Participating States and international partners.

Mars future exploration programme activities are organised within four main themes, namely:

  • MSR specific preparatory studies – To establish and secure a leading European role in the international Mars Sample Return mission through dedicated architecture studies,
  • Intermediate Mars mission studies – To study the future Mars missions following Exomars, in collaboration with NASA and possibly other partners. The first objective is to prepare the missions to be launched in 2018 and 2020, and enable systematic European involvement (and potential leadership) in these missions. The future Mars missions will prepare the ground to the Mars Sample Return mission – foreseen in the late 2020s– through both science and technology progress. Technology needs are numerous: soft-high-precision landing, autonomous rendezvous, aerobraking, autonomous surface roving capability, sampling and sample preparation technologies.
  • Exploration Technology Programme (ETP) – covering technology development activities for robotic exploration needs. This includes short or medium term activities for preparing the intermediate missions and long-term technology developments, such as Novel Power Sources or enhanced Propulsion engines. The general objective is to ensure the technology readiness of ESA contributions prior to mission implementation decision is greater than ESA's Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 5, up to demonstration stages..
  • Awareness, Education and Diffusion of scientific and technological knowledge obtained, securing a broad support to the programme in coordination with national initiatives and institutions.

The approach will enable an informed decision on the funding of advanced mission concepts at the 2011 Ministerial Council, with due consideration of the international situation prevailing at the time.

What benefits does MREP deliver?

MREP will enable Europe to play a significant role in the ongoing international robotic exploration of Mars, which is set to become one of the major undertakings of the 21st Century.

MREP sets up a framework for more systematic and structured international cooperation with the United States and other exploration partners in the decades to come, enabling an increased number of missions than either partner could achieve alone. The target is to have Europe present on each mission slot to Mars - which is every two years - as mission leader or important contributor.

The target is to have Europe present on each mission slot to Mars...

Europe has always been a continent defined by exploration, and the new technologies fostered by MREP will enable this tradition to continue well into the future, enhancing European integration by creating pride around an ambitious and inspiring cooperative project. The process of creating these enabling technologies will also advance Europe's technical know-how and industrial competitiveness.

On the long term, achieving Mars Sample Return mission will enable a decision to be made on whether to send European astronauts on to the Red Planet.

How to get involved?

MREP projects will follow the typical ESA project implementation approach and procurement rules once assignments of responsibility with NASA or any other cooperating agency are agreed. Resulting Invitations to Tender will be published on ESA's EMITS website, made available generally on an open competitive basis to all firms based in Participating States and funded on a 100 percent basis.

Last update: 26 January 2011

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