British engineers have begun testing the technology needed to bring Martian rock samples into Earth.
The Airbus team is training a prototype rover to identify and pick up small gas cylinders on the ground.
This is a rehearsal of key parts of the multi-billion dollar projects currently underway by the United States and European Space Agency (NASA and NASA).
Returning rock and dust material to the Earth laboratory would be the best way to confirm the existence of life on Mars.
However, this will take more than a decade to achieve.
Media Title Adam Camilletti: "Pick-ups must be done automatically without human intervention"
A small test tube (approximately the size of a whiteboard pen) operated by an Airbus prototype represents a Mars sample.
Their idea is that it will be launched by Americans' next large rover in seven months, selected, packaged and cached on the surface of the red planet in various places.
Then, this was the job of a later European robot that launched in 2026, running around and picking up the cylinder. This "car pick-up" transports test tubes to a processing station, where they can be sent to the earth.
They will return home in 2031.
At Airbus's Stevenage facility, they built a "Martian field" to simulate the surface of a red planet. Here, the robot can adjust the terrain it may encounter near the earth at its own pace.
Engineers now have a virtual rover station that is engaged in the business of recycling packed rock samples. And, yes, the replacement is indeed a whiteboard pen.
A vision-based software system guides the robot and claws into position on the cylinder. The mechanism drops very slowly and catches the target.
The exercise was very effective even if the tube was partially buried to mimic the consequences of a dust storm on Mars. But a bunker in the south of England is not Mars, where the temperature can be very low and space will be bombarded by radiation from space. The final "flight model" will need to be very powerful.
Airbus engineers are confident of this. They have just completed the construction of Esa's ExoMars Rosalind Franklin Rovers, who will travel to Mars in July for a separate mission. Under a subsequent contract allowed by Esa, they will bring the lessons learned from the car to the development of extractive roamers.
"We have a lot of experience in Stevenage," said engineering manager Adam Camilletti.
"We have learned how to design mechanisms, structures, electronics, holistic systems, software autonomy to work on Mars. We understand the Martian environment; we know how to make things robust. So we will use all this experience and Expertise to ensure that "Sample Extraction Rover" is the best design, "he told BBC News.
Last week, the European Research Minister approved a budget of nearly 600 million euros (515 million pounds; 660 million dollars) for the exploration of Mars robots. This will allow Esa to advance design not only on the pickup rover but also on other European elements in the project. This includes a satellite that transports samples from Mars' orbit back to Earth.
The United States has funded and built a rover next year, which will be sent to look for rock samples. However, it is expected that a parallel funding flow will be established shortly to increase its other contributions.
These will include a landing system and processing station. This large mechanism will release the retrieve rover during the mission, then process the retrieved sample cans, load them into the rocket, and fly to the sky to meet the European satellites.
"No one has tried this challenging thing before," Camilleri said. "We have returned samples from space before, but I don't think you will find a project in which so many spacecraft have this. Magnificent scientific returns. There are no comparable items. " Thomas Cook customers face delays in refunds