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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.

[ image: The mission will search for water]
The mission will search for water
"Following the conditional approval of Mars Express in November 1998, and given the Executive's assessment that the conditions are fulfilled up to the end of 2001, the SPC confirms that Mars Express can proceed", the text of its Resolution read.

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.

Other missions

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.

    The major Esa's science missions which are provided for in current budgetary planning:
  • 1999 XMM for X-ray astronomy
  • 2000 Cluster II for solar-terrestrial physics
  • 2001 Integral for gamma-ray astronomy
  • 2003 Rosetta for close inspection of Comet Wirtanen
  • 2003 Mars Express for an orbiter and lander on Mars
  • 2007 First for far-infrared astronomy
  • 2007 Planck for microwave astronomy and cosmology

[ image: Beagle 2 must find private backing]
Beagle 2 must find private backing
UK scientists will now be redoubling their efforts to get funding for the Beagle 2 lander which would ride on Mars Express.

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.

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