Mars Perseverance has a long, lonely wait ahead of it for a "fetch rover" to pick up its drilling samples, shoot them back into space and put them on board a cargo ship to earth. Credit: NASA.

You might say Airbus’s “ERO” interplanetary cargo ship has a big task on its hands … well, not hands, let’s say metal hooks.

Here is the ambitious plan:

The rover Perseverance (launched last Thursday) will collect rock and soil samples on Mars next year and store them in tubes — a project that the European Space Agency (ESA) likens to an “interplanetary treasure hunt.”

A separate fetch rover, built by the ESA and due to be launched from Earth in 2026, will then gather up to 36 of these tubes and launch them into space via a rocket.

If all goes well, the samples will then be intercepted by a giant ERO (Earth Return Orbiter) satellite and then carried back to Earth for analysis by scientists, hopefully by 2031. The ultimate aim is to prove that ancient microbial life existed on Mars billions of years ago.

The role of Airbus in the project was revealed by David Parker, who leads the ESA’s human and robotic exploration division, at a joint NASA-ESA briefing ahead of Thursday’s launch of Perseverance, China Daily reported.

“This is not just twice as difficult as any typical Mars mission; it’s twice squared — when you think about the complexity involved,” Parker said.

“And this satellite that Airbus will build s I like to call it ‘the first interplanetary cargo ship’, because that’s what it will be doing. It’s designed to carry cargo between Mars and Earth,” he told BBC News.

The ERO satellite is also planned to launch from Earth in 2026. The massive spacecraft will measure more than 39 meters across as it carries huge solar panels that power its ion engine, China Daily reported.

Dirk Hoke, the CEO of Airbus Defence and Space, said the satellite would leverage all the expertise the company had gained down the decades, BBC News reported.

If all goes well, the drill samples from Mars will be intercepted by a giant ERO (Earth Return Orbiter) satellite and then carried back to Earth for analysis by scientists. Credit: NASA/Airbus.

“Airbus Defence and Space is excited to take on this challenge as part of this joint international mission,” he said.

“As a selected prime for the Mars Sample Return’s Earth Return Orbiter, 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,” he told BBC News.

Perseverance is being targeted at a 40km-wide bowl on Mars called Jezero Crater. Orbital imagery suggests it contained lake water billions of years ago.

Scientists say there’s every chance the rocks that formed at the edge of this lake retained the chemical traces of past biology — if ever it existed, BBC News reported.

Cost estimates for the Mars Sample Return project put ESA’s contribution at US$1.7 billion, and NASA’s share will probably put the total in excess of US$7 billion.

The Perseverance mission will be the third mission despatched to Mars this month, after launches by the United Arab Emirates and China.

The separate Rosalind Franklin 2020 rover mission is a project between Europe and Russia that was due to launch to Mars this month, but engineers were not able to get the vehicle ready in time, and postponed it to 2022 when the planets are favorably aligned.