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Wednesday, March 4, 1998 Published at 17:27 GMT


Business opportunities on Mars
image: [ Advertisers may soon be looking to the heavens ]
Advertisers may soon be looking to the heavens

Businesses may be invited to sponsor a space mission to Mars in search of life.

Professor Colin Pillinger talks about the bid to BBC Radio 4's Today programme
Details of the British-led flight have been revealed at a conference of leading European planetary scientists in London.

If it is given the go-ahead by the European Space Agency, the Mars Express mission to investigate the surface and atmosphere of the planet will be launched in 2003.

Several proposals for the mission have been submitted to ESA by European scientists.

The most ambitious, spearheaded by Professor Colin Pillinger of the Open University's Planetary Science Research Institute, is for a lander and rover to analyse rock and soil samples for evidence for past or present life.

Beagle 2 - named after Charles Darwin's famous ship - would have a sophisticated on-board laboratory to test for the chemical hallmarks of living organisms.

[ image: An artist's impression of the Beagle-2 concept (PSRI)]
An artist's impression of the Beagle-2 concept (PSRI)
A question mark hangs over the funding for Beagle 2, however.

While ESA is willing to pay 100m for the cost of the launch and Mars Express orbiter, the added expense of the lander package must be met separately.

Professor Pillinger said he would be quite willing to turn to private industry if government backing could not be found.

He said: "I wouldn't mind where the money came from, within reason, though I wouldn't want any megalomaniacs involved."

He said a number of companies had already shown great interest in the project.

Search for signs of life

The mission would use a small wheeled vehicle, similar to Nasa's Pathfinder rover, equipped with a drill to extract samples from up to two metres underground.

[ image: Did Mars once support life? (Nasa)]
Did Mars once support life? (Nasa)
These would be brought back to the lander for detailed chemical analysis, and slivers of rock would be examined.

The Martian atmosphere would also be investigated for any substance, like methane, which could only have a biological source, said Professor Pillinger.

"This is a much more scientific mission than Pathfinder was, and the technology is already at an advanced state of development."

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