How This Robotic Arm is Helping To Find Life On Mars

(Pasadena, California – November 9, 2021)

On Sept. 1, NASA’s Perseverance became the first spacecraft to successfully pack up a rock sample from another planet that will eventually be returned to Earth, as early as 2031. The rover drilled about 2 inches, or 6 centimeters, to extract a rock core from Mars’ Jezero Crater, then safely stored it in a titanium tube for its eventual earthly return. And it did so using a robotic arm from Motiv.

Designed and built by Motiv Space Systems, this robotic arm is helping Perseverance advance the search for life on the Red Planet. Over 2 meters long, the arm uses five finely tuned joints and boasts a science payload capacity of over 45 kilograms. With instrumentation designed specifically for the forensic inspection of past life on Mars, this arm also carries some of the mission’s most critical tools, including SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals) and WATSON (Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and eNgineering). SHERLOC uses cameras, spectrometers, and a laser to search for organics, minerals, and signs of past microbial life that may have been altered by the watery Martian Environments. SHERLOC is assisted by WATSON, a color camera for taking close-up images of rock grains and surface textures. WATSON and SHERLOC are accompanied on Perseverance by GDRT (Gaseous Dust Removal Tool), a Ground Contact Sensor, and more.

As a critical part of the Mars Sample Return mission, one of Perseverance’s key objectives is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. Using its technology, the rover will distinguish the planet’s geology and past climate, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and store Martian rock and regolith (broken rock and dust). Developed in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA), the Mars Sample Return mission hopes to launch a rocket full of cargo in 2031 from the surface of Mars to be studied on Earth.

A sample return like this requires many moving parts, each with specific technology. First, an ESA sample fetch rover would launch from Earth to pick up the samples collected by the robotic arm on Perseverance. The rover would transfer the samples to a lander, which is being developed at NASA’s JPL. A robotic arm on the lander would pack the samples into the tip of a rocket that is being designed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. The rocket would deliver the sample capsule to Martian orbit, where an ESA orbiter would be waiting to receive it. Inside the orbiter, the capsule would be prepared for delivery to Earth by a payload being developed by a team led by NASA Goddard. This preparation would include sealing the sample capsule inside a clean container to trap any Martian material inside, sterilizing the seal, and using a robotic arm being developed at Goddard to place the sealed container into an Earth-entry capsule before the return trip to Earth. Once on Earth, scientists would transport the samples to a secure biohazard facility to ensure complete safety and sterilization before they begin analysis for fossilized organic matter or other signs of ancient microbial life.

As the reach into space grows, so does the technology that takes us there. Motiv is bringing years of expertise and knowledgeable engineers together to create technology that brings us answers from the great unknown – including if there is life on Mars. Looks like we’ll have the answer sooner than later!

Motiv Space Systems delivered to JPL/NASA the most capable robotic arm in its campaign to search for life on the Red Planet. Learn more about Motiv’s work on the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover.

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