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UK returns to Mars in a big way!


UK scientists are returning to Mars with the news that the UK is to be a major player in the first phase of the European Space Agency’s robotic space exploration programme – Aurora – which will set the agenda for Europe’s robotic exploration of space for the next 10 years. The announcement was made at the conclusion of ESA’s Ministerial Meeting held in Berlin (5-6 December).

The UK is to invest 108.1 million Euros (approximately £74.4 million) into Aurora, making the UK second largest contributor. The majority of this will go into ExoMars (101 million Euros, approximately £69.5 million) – ESA’s Mars Exploration mission which is due to launch in 2011, arriving at Mars in 2013. A further 7.1 million Euros (approximately £4.9 million) is invested into the Core Programme to prepare for a future Mars Sample Return mission.

Speaking at the Ministerial Lord Sainsbury, Minister for Science and Innovation said, “Aurora will build on last week’s exciting Mars Express results which provide the first concrete evidence of significant amounts of water under the surface of Mars. 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.”

ExoMars will involve exploring Mars in three dimensions – investigating the existence of life on the planet and study Mars’s suitability for an eventual human mission. The mission will investigate the surface of Mars with a rover and will also look at what is below the surface with a seismometer, ground penetrating radar and a drill. The technology and instrumentation prepared for ExoMars will pave the way for a future network of science stations and for a sample return mission.

Professor Keith Mason, CEO of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) and Chair of the UK Space Board, said, “This commitment by the UK to this major new European programme is highly significant and as well as paving the way for great scientific return it represents an investment in core technologies to be developed not only for ExoMars but for further robotic missions.”

He continues, “ExoMars will compliment the international efforts to explore Mars and the rest of ESA’s successful space programme to explore our solar system. Mars Express, Cassini-Huygens and Smart-1 continue to deliver amazing results with further revelations set to return through missions such as Venus Express and Rosetta.”

The UK also committed 374.3 million Euros (approximately £257.6 million) to ESA’s science programme representing approximately 18% of the total ESA science programme budget of 2080 million Euros.

Professor Mason adds, “By re-affirming our commitment to invest in ESA’s science programme the UK recognises that this is a pillar upon which the rest of the Agency’s activities are built. This will help to ensure a cost effective programme which delivers a high scientific return.”

On hearing the news Professor John Zarnecki from the Open University, said,
"This is wonderful news - we can now look forward to British scientific instruments and technology being on the surface of Mars by 2013. This is an outstanding opportunity for UK scientists and industry to be a part of this European venture to search for life on Mars and to understand better the environment of our close neighbour."

Dr Mark Sims from the University of Leicester and Chair of PPARC’s Aurora Advisory Board adds, “The Aurora programme is a fantastic opportunity to exploit the great interest in planetary science and exploration throughout Europe and particularly in the UK. This programme will build upon the significant scientific and industrial expertise built up in missions such as Cassini-Huygens, Mars Express, and Beagle 2. Planetary exploration has the added potential for instrumentation spin-offs into many fields and commercial sectors, and of exciting the general public. In particular planetary space science can inspire our young students to continue their education in science, engineering and technology and ultimately encourage them to enter into careers in science and technology. This can only build and strengthen the UK’s industrial and economic base.”

In the UK the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council is responsible for the UK space science budget (ESA core space science programme and Aurora investment).

Peter Barratt | alfa
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