By Jonathan Amos
BBC News Online science staff
The UK is almost certainly going back to Mars and is set to become a major player in Europe's efforts to explore the Solar System.
Aurora would put a rover on the Martian surface
Science minister Lord Sainsbury says the country will pay the £5m interim subscriptions needed to maintain a premier place in the Aurora programme.
Aurora sets out a vision for Europe to visit the planets with robotic probes and perhaps one day even with humans.
Initially, however, the aim will be to put unmanned vehicles on the Red Planet.
UK planetary scientists are keen to follow up their ill-fated Beagle 2 mission which attempted to place a 70kg science laboratory on the surface of Mars on Christmas Day last year.
Lead nation status
Although the robot did not survive the entry and landing phase of the mission, scientists and engineers from academia and industry believe they should be allowed to build on the expertise they acquired.
Over the next 18 months, they will be asked to map out how the UK could be involved in three future projects:
Discussions will be held with partners in the European Space Agency on the UK's precise role in these projects.
- A demonstrator mission that would show Europe could land safely on the surface of the Red Planet with a static robot
- A car-sized roving robot, much like the US space agency's "mobile geologists", which could move across the surface of Mars and dig two metres into the ground
- A mission that would land on Mars, collect rocks and return them to Earth for study in the laboratory.
It could lead to the country paying around £25m a year to lead some missions.
"Britons have always been explorers and this is an opportunity to rekindle our sense of adventure," said Lord Sainsbury.
Need for speed
It is hoped the research and development effort involved in designing and building the missions will have major spin-offs - such as new failure-tolerant software that can still function when components go wrong; or "lab on a chip" technology which is capable of analysing extremely small samples.
"By investing a small amount of money at the right time and at the right level, you can influence the direction of programmes and you give our industry the opportunity to win leading roles - to win the primary contracts," said Dr Mike Healy from EADS-Astrium, one of Europe's leading spacecraft manufacturers.
Aurora is still at a very early stage in its development. European ministers still have to approve the full programme. But if they do, the UK would be expected to pick up about 17% of the total budget which is likely to be in the region of £150m a year.
It is not clear yet when the first mission - the landing demonstrator - will actually launch. Currently, the rover is earmarked for 2009 but commentators believe this may be too soon.
In which case a "Beagle 3", or something like it, could be sent in that window on a mission whose primary objective was to test entry and landing technologies.
Professor Colin Pillinger, the chief scientist on Beagle 2, said it was imperative Europe made key decisions quickly, otherwise the field would be monopolised by the US.
"If we don't get a move on, the science will have been done by the time we get there," he said. "And I don't believe in 'me too' science."
Dr Sarah Dunkin, from the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and vice-president of the Royal Astronomical Society, said she thought the European missions could do different things.
"There are payloads and experiments which haven't been flown to Mars and still have no opportunity to go to Mars because America's payloads are sewn up," she said.
"So, there are still opportunities to carry out novel science that the American's won't do first because they won't be flying those types of instruments."
Europe would have to avoid just repeating US missions
If Britain follows through with its intentions and joins the full Aurora programme, it will inevitably put some pressure on other areas of the UK science budget and could mean other researchers having to curtail their ambitions.
Two areas in particular are mentioned in this discussion: the global project to build a next-generation linear collider to study the fundamentals of matter; and an extremely large telescope to look at very faint objects in the Universe.
"The bottom line on this is that we can play a significant role in all three programmes," said Lord Sainsbury.
"Can we provide the money to satisfy all the demands of all communities? The answer is 'no'. At the margins, there will have to be a debate about which programme gets more?"