By Paul Rincon
Science reporter, BBC News, Hatfield
Mars Sample Return will be a joint European-US mission
Rocks from Mars could be brought to the UK within the next 20 years, if a bid to host a study facility is successful.
The European and US space agencies want to send a mission to the Red Planet to collect and return geological samples.
These fragments of rock and soil could be in Earth labs by the 2020s, according to the European Space Agency's (Esa) science director.
Britain would like to host a curation facility for the extra-terrestrial material at Harwell in Oxfordshire.
It is certainly a possibility as the study of Martian rocks is likely to be distributed across a number of centres around the US and Europe.
In November 2008, it was announced that a new Esa centre would be located in the UK.
One of the bids is the Harwell Centre. One of its areas of expertise is likely to be associated with curation
David Southwood, science director, Esa
Though its remit has not yet been finalised, some have talked about concentrating expertise in robotics and in climate change at the Harwell centre.
However, the site could also be used for the storage and study of extra-terrestrial samples if UK scientists have their way.
David Southwood, director of science at Esa, told BBC News: "One of the bids is the Harwell Centre. One of its areas of expertise is likely to be associated with curation - how to handle samples."
The UK has both world-class expertise in the study of meteorites and experience in the area of "planetary protection" gained during its preparations for the failed Beagle 2 Mars lander mission.
In July last year, Esa awarded a team led by aerospace and defence contractor SEA Group with a contract worth 500,000 euros to define the requirements and initial concept for a bio-containment facility capable of handling rocks from Mars.
How the Mars Sample Return mission will work
Such facilities would need to be designed to protect Earth's environment from any potential risk posed by samples returned from Mars and other Solar System bodies, as well as protecting the samples themselves from terrestrial contamination.
At the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science meeting in Hatfield this week, experts also announced the formation of a network designed to open up analysis facilities for extra-terrestrial samples to UK researchers.
One of the activities of the UK Cosmochemical Analysis Network (UK CAN) will be to prepare for the study and curation of samples returned by future missions.
"UK CAN will bring together the expertise that we have already built up in the UK and allow us to develop the infrastructure and skills to deal with the challenges of future missions, such as samples returned from the surface of Mars," said Monica Grady, professor of planetary sciences at the Open University in Milton Keynes, UK.
EXOMARS MISSION CONCEPT
Set to leave Earth in 2016; primary aim is to search for life
Requires a heavy-lift rocket, such as a Proton, Ariane or Atlas
Vented landing bags allow for a larger payload
Rover will carry a 16.5kg 'Pasteur' instrument suite
30kg geophysics/environment static station is a possibility
This would study the weather and listen for 'Marsquakes'
Concept to cost Esa states more than first estimates
Mars Sample Return, targeted for a lift-off by 2020, is a joint mission concept between the European and US space agencies (Nasa).
Professor Southwood said it was now likely the US would assume a greater degree of involvement in Europe's overall Mars exploration roadmap - particularly on its forthcoming ExoMars rover mission.
This rover will use a suite of advanced instruments to search for signs of life on the Red Planet, and is due to be launched in 2016.
In excess of 1.2bn euros will be needed to fund the venture, and Esa member states have so far committed only 850m euros. This makes international co-operation a pre-requisite.
"We are more or less certain that on ExoMars, Europe and the US will be leading partners, probably with Russian involvement. It's a first step to the international exploration of Mars," Professor Southwood said.
In return for America's commitment on ExoMars, Europe will work with the US on its succeeding missions to Red Planet.
The US has financial woes in its own Mars programme, with their next rover - the Mars Science Laboratory, due to fly to the Red Planet in 2011 - also heading way over budget.
Under a joint Nasa-Esa Mars exploration scenario, a Nasa-led rover mission could follow ExoMars in 2018, with a likely focus on exobiology.
After that, a network of landers dedicated to investigating the Martian environment and the planet's geophysics might be sent.
This US-European agreement on co-operation is set to be formalised in June at a conference held in Plymouth, UK.
Professor Southwood said that, under one current scenario, ExoMars could be lofted on an American launcher and may carry an orbiter to relay data from the Martian surface to Earth.
Previously, officials had been considering whether to rely on the US existing US orbiter spacecraft for comms.
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