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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 December 2005, 15:42 GMT
UK signs up to Euro Mars mission
By Helen Briggs
BBC News science reporter, Berlin

Ariane, AOES Medialab/Esa
An Ariane rocket will carry the Exo Mars payload
The UK is to play a key role in Europe's next mission to Mars.

The government is to invest 108m euros (73.2m) to give Britain a major share in building the robotic probe.

European Space Agency (Esa) member states approved funding for the ExoMars mission at the agency's minsterial meeting in Berlin.

The rover will explore the surface of the Red Planet, in search of traces of life, past and present.

The mission is a key milestone in the Aurora programme, Esa's vision to send spacecraft and eventually astronauts to the Moon and Mars.

'Improve understanding'

In the near-term, it focuses on robotic missions: ExoMars set for 2011, followed by an international Mars sample return mission.

Speaking at the ministerial meeting, science minister Lord Sainsbury said: "As a major contributor, the UK will have a leading role in this programme which is set to improve our understanding of Mars and the Solar System."

Ministers approved funding for the 2006-2011 phase of the Aurora programme on Tuesday.

The bulk of the money will be used to develop ExoMars, with the rest being used for basic research into future missions to the Moon and Mars.

The UK is contributing 101m euros (68.5m) to ExoMars and 7m euros (4.7m) to the core research activities out of a total subscription of around 750m euros (508m).

This will give British industry a large share of the work, allowing them to build on the expertise gained during the ill-fated Beagle 2 mission.

Beagle was designed to search for signs of life on the Red Planet but it did not survive entry and landing on Mars on Christmas Day 2003.

Concept Mars lander (Esa)
The ability to drill under the surface will be a first for a Mars mission

David Parker, director of space science at the British National Space Centre, said the mission would build on the heritage of Beagle 2.

"Imagine a spacecraft landing on Mars using parachutes and airbags, maybe a rocket system of some sort," he told the BBC News website.

"Once it has landed it's going to allow a rover to drive out onto the surface.

"But it's not just going to explore over the surface because it will have a drill and other instruments that can actually probe beneath the surface for the first time, and that's what's really special in this mission."

Tough choices

Subscribing to the Aurora programme has meant difficult decisions on other areas of the UK space budget.

The UK has signed up to a new system to manage data from environmental satellites called Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES).

But it is contributing only about 4% (8.9m euros/6m) of the total Esa budget of 200m euros. The UK space lobby has called for far greater investment in GMES, requesting a 16% contribution to the total budget.

Nick Veck of the UK space trade association, UKISP, said it was a lost opportunity for British industry.

"It seems rather bizarre that the UK wishes to lead on climate change but has snubbed this important programme that would help," he told the BBC News website.

Mike Healy, director of Earth Observation, Navigation and Science, UK, at EADS Astrium said industry was very disappointed by the decision.

"I cannot understand how the UK can be championing the cause of climate change but is going in at a level that is not much more than Finland, Switzerland and Sweden," he said.

The UK is committing 374.3m euros (254m) to Esa's science programme, representing about 18% of the total Esa science programme budget.

It is also investing 205m euros (139m) to a series of earth observation missions. The first such satellite, the ice-monitoring probe, Cryosat, was lost on launch in October.

Sources close to the talks are confident Cryosat will be re-built but a final decision will not be made until February.

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