Scientists have drawn up plans that could see the first traces of Martian life discovered in a British laboratory.
The idea is one element of a series of ambitious measures to reinforce Britain's position at the forefront of space science, building on the forthcoming Beagle 2 mission to Mars.
Draft proposals drawn up by members of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council have been circulated among scientists in anticipation of the post-election government spending review.
At present, the PPARC pays £40 million a year for membership of the European Space Agency and £12 million for specific projects. Spending is projected to fall to £9 million by 2006.
The PPARC team has argued that an investment of £100 million over five years would give the United Kingdom a leading role in Esa. The alternative, according to Mike Cruise, chairman of the space science advisory committee and head of physics and astronomy at Birmingham University, is a substantial decline in British expertise.
The draft proposals cover areas in which the UK is already strong. Prominent will be techniques for identifying life and the search for life-supporting planets around stars. This includes a facility to study samples returned to Earth from Mars, which would require major investment, in part to address the risk of possible Martian microbes escaping into the Earth's environment.
Professor Cruise said that such a project would draw on expertise in analysing meteorite samples, most notably at the Open University. The facility would open in 2009 and would play an instrumental role in efforts to identify extraterrestrial life.
Other proposals include involvement in space telescopes to detect the X-rays and gravitational waves produced by black holes and neutron stars. The UK should also seek to host a prestigious gravitational wave observatory, the panel report says.
A prominent role in the development of Esa's solar probes is essential, according to the proposals, which could lead to industrial collaboration to build swarms of small, cheap satellites to explore the interaction between solar winds and the Earth's environment.