Augsburg, 20 May 2021. Our neighboring planet Mars has been having repeated visits from Earth: Probes are orbiting Mars, rovers are being deployed there, we recently received a soundbite from Mars and, until recently, we eagerly anticipated the maiden flight of NASA's "Ingenuity" helicopter. The European Space Agency ESA and its U.S. counterpart NASA want to take robotic exploration of the Red Planet to a new level in the Mars Sample Return (MSR) program: the delivery of Mars soil samples to Earth in the 2030s. The Augsburg based MT Aerospace AG, which is part of the high-tech group OHB SE in Bremen, is making a major contribution to the program by supplying tank systems for the "Earth Return Orbiter" (ERO), the most prominent European component of this project.
"We have been commissioned by Airbus, ERO’s prime contractor for ESA, to develop, manufacture and qualify the tank systems of the European spacecraft that will receive the rock samples in Mars orbit and deliver them to Earth. We are very proud to be able to contribute the know-how we have accumulated over many years to this highly challenging mission," says Hans Steininger, CEO of MT Aerospace AG. The company has developed unique manufacturing technologies and is a leader in lightweight construction using metal and composite materials. Its advanced structural components and tanks are used successfully in European and international launchers (including Ariane and the Space Launch System), spacecraft, satellites and Airbus' aircraft fleet.
Three departure flights, one return flight
The deployment of NASA's Mars rover “Perseverance” in February this year marked the first step in the ambitious Mars Sample Return program. The rover will scout the surface of the planet to collect rock, soil and atmospheric samples. In 2026, both NASA and ESA plan to set off again on another mission to the Red Planet: NASA will then launch the “Sample Retrieval Lander” mission with an ESA-controlled “Sample Fetch Rover” to land on Mars and collect the sample containers filled by “Perseverance”. An accompanying “Mars Ascent Vehicle” will then transport a football-sized canister comprising the sample containers into Mars orbit. This is where ESA will be sending its ERO in order to rendezvous with the canister and load it on board. ERO, built by a great team of space companies from all over Europe (including MT Aerospace) under the lead of Airbus, will be equipped with various propulsion systems for the round trip to Mars and most of the associated tank systems will come from Augsburg.
Tanks from MT Aerospace will enable the trip to Mars – and back
MT Aerospace AG specializes in the development and manufacture of high-precision structures and tanks for the aerospace industry - made of both metallic and composite materials, as one-offs, small batches or series production. "We develop and manufacture largely in Germany and have built up an attractive tank portfolio over the years complemented by unique manufacturing technologies," says Thomas Schermann, who is responsible for the tank sector at MT Aerospace AG. "Whenever low mass is of high importance, a thin-walled metallic tank shell, which is given the required stability by a CFRP (carbon fiber reinforced plastic) wrapping is the first choice of design."
To date, approximately 21,000 aviation tanks have been sold. Customers primarily include the European aircraft manufacturer Airbus. Around 330 tanks for satellites have been delivered to date to major space industry players such as Thales Alenia Space, Airbus and OHB SE companies. Three differ-ent tank systems have now been ordered for the ERO mission:
• The largest tank delivered by MT Aerospace AG for the European ERO is the 900-liter L-XTA Xenon tank. It will supply the spacecraft's highly efficient electric propulsion system, which will be used not only for the transfer phase but also for maneuvers in Mars orbit. The €1 million contract was awarded by the ERO mission's industrial prime contractor, Airbus SAS of France. The CFRP-wrapped special metallic tank is planned for delivery to the customer as early as next year.
• Airbus has also chosen the expertise of MT Aerospace AG for the tanks for the spacecraft's chemical propulsion system. The 2.8 million euro contract for the manufacture and qualification of these tanks was signed last week. It comprises several metallic tanks from the E3000 tank series originally developed for telecommunications satellites in order to minimize development complexity and effort. They each hold 225 liters and release the required amount of propellant and oxidizer in zero gravity using capillary action via a complex assembly (the propellant management device). The chemical propulsion system will be used for entry into Mars orbit as well as for leaving it after sample capture.
• MT Aerospace AG was also the first choice for ERO's helium high-pressure vessel (HeHPV). Un-der a subcontract to Avio S.p.A. of Italy, a 90-liter high-pressure tank (internal pressure 310 bar) is being developed and manufactured in addition to the existing 50-liter version of the established tank family. The metallic liner, which is less than 1 mm thick at its thinnest point, will be reinforced with a CFRP wrapping and will provide the necessary overpressure in the liquid propellant tanks on board the spacecraft. In this way, the chemical propulsion thrusters is reliably supplied with propellant during critical maneuvers.
The ERO mission is very demanding. The scientific investigations of the valuable cargo will lead to completely new insights and ideally complement the experiments transmitted by Mars probes or previously carried out remotely on the surface of Mars. "Our customers were convinced by our universally recognized quality of work and our capability to meet the required delivery times, enabling us to make a decisive contribution to this unique mission," enthuses Simon Bühler, who is responsible for tank sales at MT Aerospace AG.
About MT Aerospace AG
MT Aerospace AG is an aerospace company with around 600 employees at its sites in Augsburg, Cagliari (Italy), Santiago de Chile and Kourou, French Guiana. MT Aerospace develops and produces key components for the European launcher Ariane, the Airbus aircraft fleet, spacecraft and satellites. MT Aerospace is a technology leader in lightweight structures using metal and composite materials. With an order volume of ten percent, MT Aerospace is the largest supplier for the Ariane program outside France.