By Helen Briggs
BBC News Online
The European Space Agency (Esa) has been setting out its vision to put a person on Mars within three decades. BBC News Online talks to Dr Franco Ongaro, the man charged with implementing the proposals.
A robotic mission may be followed by a manned one
Q: What's Europe's vision for the future, compared with the US?
A: It's interesting that we seem to have a very similar vision of the future. Let's face it - there aren't many places where men can go besides Earth easily in the future. The Moon is one, and that we know, Mars is the next one.
To go beyond, towards the asteroids, or in towards Venus and Mercury would present very, very difficult technical challenges for the moment and perhaps a lot less interest than a planet like Mars. So it's good that we are driving in the same direction and I'm sure we'll find a way to share a ride.
Q: What are the main milestones set out under Europe's plans?
A: What we're thinking of is for the next five years to have one major robotic mission, which is called ExoMars, and it would be a sort of "Beagle 3" going to look for life but with a mobile rover and a bigger suite of payload.
That will also test technologies which are necessary for the Mars sample return. The Mars sample return will then come in 2011 and 2014 - so that's the next five years.
Esa hopes to evolve new space technology in the next five years
And in the next five years, we'll evolve technologies to take our first trip back to the Moon and land astronauts there between 2020 and 2025.
At the same time, our probes to Mars will increase in size, in order to demonstrate, finally, the pieces that we need to take humans there and then hopefully the first woman on Mars will see it in 2030 or 2035 - in that time frame.
Q: The 2009 mission seems similar to what Nasa's doing in terms of a mobile rover...
A: Correct, to a point. I think the basic difference is in the specialisation of the instruments. We're of course not interested in repeating what Nasa's doing; Nasa right now is mainly looking for traces of water and geological data, which is of course very important for us in planning our mission.
But our mission will mainly be devoted to very sophisticated instruments to look for traces of past life, life current, or hazards to human exploration in the future.
Q: What does the UK stand to lose if it decides not to sign up to the first robotic stage of Esa's plans?
A: I would rather put it another way - what would Europe lose? Because it is clear that although there are strong competencies all over in Europe, the UK has a fantastic competence at this time in particular and excellent teams to work on a Mars mission.
Industry has worked on the Mars Express and on the Beagle 2 - these people are motivated even more after what happened with Beagle 2 and we would like to get them to work with us right away. They have the competence, the enthusiasm and the experience by now and we certainly need them.