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Last Updated: Friday, 9 July 2004, 22:32 GMT 23:32 UK
UK 'must back Europe space plans'
By Paul Rincon
BBC News Online science staff

Sample return mission   Esa
Europe's space agency wants to return samples of Mars rock to Earth
British space expertise will be wasted unless the UK government backs Europe's ambitious Aurora programme, experts say.

Insiders claim the UK needs to be involved in Aurora if it is to capitalise on the know-how developed on the Beagle 2 Mars lander project.

The government's spending review, to be announced on Monday, will determine whether the UK will be able to play a leading role in the programme.

Aurora will set out a long-term plan for exploration of the Solar System.

The programme as envisaged by the European Space Agency (Esa) involves landing a robot rover on the surface of Mars - perhaps as early as 2009.

We know more about entry, descent and landing systems and we know more about the science. But of course that counts for nothing if the government doesn't put any money in
Mike Healy, EADS-Astrium
This would be followed by a sample-return mission - to bring Martian rock back to Earth for analysis - and possibly by manned missions.

Despite the ultimate failure of Beagle 2, many believe the science and instrumentation developed on the project gives the UK the edge over other Esa member states when competing for contracts in future lander missions.

Mike Healy, UK director of Earth observation, navigation and science for EADS-Astrium, which specialises in satellite systems and helped build Beagle 2, summed up the argument when he went before a committee of MPs on Monday.

"I think it's worth saying that it would be a complete waste of all the time and money and energy that's been put into Beagle if that was the end of it - if we don't go into Aurora or something like that," Dr Healy told the House of Commons select committee hearing on Beagle 2.

Opportunity knocks?

Dr Peter Cotgreave, director of campaigning group Save British Science, echoed this view: "I sincerely hope that Beagle has raised the profile of British space science and that people take the same view as Colin Pillinger.

"That is that we could have done it and we have to redouble our efforts to think about how to do something similar again."

Committing to Aurora would demand an investment from the UK of around 35m per annum for five years. This would cover funding for any science instruments built in Britain and a contribution to the European Space Agency's programme that would allow UK industry to get involved.

ExoMars rover   Esa
Esa wants to land a rover on Mars to look for signs of life
For the space community, Aurora is an opportunity too good to pass up - the opportunity for UK academia and industry to play a leading role in space exploration over the next two decades.

"I'm used to being quite envious of what the governments of France and Germany do to pre-position their industries in terms of these European ventures," Dr Healy told BBC News Online.

"For once, the UK is in the lead. We know more about entry, descent and landing systems and we know more about the science. But of course that counts for nothing if the government doesn't put any money in.

"You've got to go in early and at a decent level, then industry will look after itself. If you go in late, when all the good positions have gone, then it's impossible to get back in."

A tranche of preliminary studies for Aurora are already under way. But the key funding decisions for the programme will be made at the next Esa Ministerial Council meeting in June 2005.

Internal tensions

Some suspect the government will dedicate money to the programme, but will ask the relevant research council, in this case the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PParc), to find the rest from its existing programmes.

But for PParc, ground-based astronomy and particle physics remain a strong focus. Striking the balance between sustaining traditional Earth-based research and supporting the UK's burgeoning space efforts is no easy task. Unsurprisingly, the issue has been a constant source of internal tension.

Mars base   Esa
The emphasis may be moving away from manned missions
Some proponents of the programme have placed hope in efforts to persuade other government departments and research councils to contribute money to a pot. But investing in space research is not of obvious value to everyone and getting different government bodies to join forces is by no means a given.

So all eyes will be on PParc's budget to give the clearest indication of the money available for Aurora. Monday's announcement will outline top-level spending plans, but it may be September before the breakdown by individual research councils is known.

Some observers are warning that this could be a tough spending round for the government.

But there is cause for optimism. A group chaired by Dr Monica Grady, of the Natural History Museum, recently presented a report outlining the science case for Aurora to PParc's science committee, and the response is said to have been positive.

'Positive response'

On 30 June, science minister Lord Sainsbury was quizzed about Aurora in the House of Lords. His response has been interpreted favourably by proponents of UK involvement in the programme.

"We are looking at the contribution we will make," he told the House. "That will depend of course on how the programme turns out. We are very keen that it should focus on robotic exploration and not manned exploration and are extremely keen to take part in the programme."

Scientists also hold out hope that Aurora might change to suit the UK's frugal approach. "Aurora is changing almost weekly from Esa's perspective," said one insider.

"[Esa] is getting similar vibes from the other member states, particularly France and Germany. Germany's not flush with cash right now and to some extent France's budget is a bit strapped as well."

The whole emphasis on manned missions is dwindling, say observers, and more emphasis is being placed on robotic exploration.

This might align Aurora a little more closely with the mandatory science programmes that Esa member states are already engaged in - which would be good news for the UK and presumably other member states.

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