Tuesday, March 30, 1999 Published at 15:36 GMT 16:36 UK
Europe signs Mars deal
MMS will lead a team of 24 companies on the project
By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse
Anglo-French company Matra Marconi Space (MMS) has signed a 60m euros (£40m) contract with the European Space Agency (Esa) to send a probe to Mars.
Using much of the hardware that was developed for the Mars 96 mission that failed to reach Earth orbit, the Mars Express spacecraft will be equipped with seven scientific instruments.
It will analyse ultraviolet and infrared light to search for water on Mars. It is possible it may exist in buried glaciers or hidden underground rivers. If this is true, it raises the prospect of some kind of primitive life existing on the planet.
A stereoscopic camera, to be built by German scientists, will take 3D images of Mars. The UK's Open University is hoping to supply a lander for the mission called Beagle 2. This will conduct bioliogy and geochemical tests.
A key feature on Beagle 2 will be a mole, capable of crawling across the Martian surface and burrowing into rock.
The timing of the mission is crucial. If Mars Express does not blast off in June 2003, it must wait another two years before a new launch window becomes available. 2003 is also one of the most favourable launch windows to Mars in many years.
The contract between Esa and Matra Marconi will create more than a thousand skilled jobs across Europe. However, the whole venture hangs on a meeting of European space ministers in May who will decide Esa's budget for the next five years.
Over the next decade, Mars will be the centre of attention for planetary scientists as a flotilla of spaceprobes will visit it every two years.
Some of these will be orbiters and some will land on the surface. It is hoped that eventually a sample of Mars rock can be returned to Earth for analysis.
Tuesday's announcement that the funding for Esa's Mars Express is in place will be a relief for many scientists who feared that it was in jeopardy because it did not offer much that was different from the Nasa spaceprobes planned to visit the planet.