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Thursday, May 13, 1999 Published at 00:30 GMT 01:30 UK


Budget deal clears way for Mars Express

The next few years will see several missions to Mars

Colin Pillinger has high hopes that Beagle 2 will ride with Mars Express
European governments agreed a five-year space budget late on Wednesday that should now clear the way for the continent's first expedition to Mars.

The European Space Agency (Esa) plans to send a probe to the Red Planet in June 2003.

The spacecraft will be equipped with seven scientific instruments that will enable it to search for water on Earth's near neighbour.

[ image: Mars Express will create hundreds of jobs across Europe]
Mars Express will create hundreds of jobs across Europe
If water can be found, it raises the prospect of some kind of primitive life existing on the planet.

Although a deal was signed last month with commercial partners to begin work on the Mars Express project, member states had to ensure the £100m cost of the expedition did not jeopardise other space programmes.

And after a two-day meeting of European space and science ministers in Brussels, agreement has now been reached on the funding of a range new and existing projects.

This means Esa should be able to pay for Mars Express out of the money allocated to its space science programme.

However, there was no further news from the UK Government on Wednesday night over whether it planned to put funds into the Beagle 2 lander which British scientists want to send with Mars Express.

Real money

This Open University (OU)-led project would put instruments down on the surface of the planet, including a small mole that could burrow into rock and retrieve samples for analysis.

The UK Science Minister Lord Sainsbury went into the Esa meeting saying the government is 'enthusiastic' about Beagle, but refused to commit any public cash to the project.

[ image: The Beagle mole will drop a sample into an onboard laboratory]
The Beagle mole will drop a sample into an onboard laboratory
Nevertheless, the OU's Professor Colin Pillinger, the lead scientist behind the lander, is still confident that the £25m needed to get Beagle onboard Mars Express can still be found.

"I think in the next few weeks we could see some serious talking and some real money being put on the table by the appropriate players," he told the BBC. "So I have every hope that before the summer, we'll be much more sure of what we're doing."

The UK Government did, however, commit £67m to Esa's environmental research. Its 'Living Planet' programme will use satellite technology to monitor global warming, ozone depletion and pollution in the lower atmosphere.

There was approval at the ministerial meeting for the second phase of a programme to develop satellite digital multimedia technology.

There was also commitment from Esa members, and from the UK in particular, to set aside feasibility funds for an independent European satellite navigation system, much like the American GPS network.

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