Monday, May 24, 1999 Published at 11:58 GMT 12:58 UK
Green light to Red Planet
Mars Express is set for launch in 2003
The European Space Agency (Esa) has given the final go-ahead to the Mars Express mission. The probe, due for launch in 2003, will be the continent's first mission to the Red Planet.
Esa's Scientific Programme Committee (SPC), which gathered in Bern on 19-20 May, took the decision after European ministers had agreed overall budgets for the agency at a meeting in Brussels the previous week.
Mars Express is a collaboration between senior scientists in 14 Esa member States.
The spacecraft will analyse ultraviolet and infrared light in its search for water. It is possible the water may exist in buried glaciers or in 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 also take 3D images of Mars.
The mission was only given final approval after assurances were given that the prestige project would not harm other space programmes such as the First and Planck astronomical missions.
An Open University-led project, Beagle has a mole which can crawl across the Martian surface and burrowing into rock, retrieving samples for analysis.
The lander will cost £25m and the scientists involved have to find private backing, although they are still hopeful of support from the UK government.