Mars Express, a European mission to the red planet in 2003, is set for lift-off after a meeting of European science ministers agreed to boost the European Space Agency's science budget over the next four years.
Led by UK science minister Lord Sainsbury, the meeting agreed a science budget of E1.46 billion less than what was being sought by ESA, but probably sufficient to secure the Mars Express mission, and keep on course the Planck/First mission to measure radiation left over from the "big bang". The increase is roughly in line with inflation.
The Brussels meeting also heralded the start of a new E593 million programme of environmental research that will enable scientists to look back at the Earth from space and to measure, understand and predict the Earth's environment and man's effect upon it. The UK will invest E100 million (Pounds 67 million) in this "Earth Observation Living Planet Programme" over the next four years.
Announcing the new programme, Lord Sainsbury said it put Earth sciences "on an equal footing" with ESA's traditional areas of scientic research in astronomy and planetary exploration. Although missions are still to be selected, among the leading candidates for inclusion in the Living Planet programme, is research by Duncan Wingham of University College London. He wants to measure fluctuations in the mass of the Earth's land and marine ice fields, to improve understanding of global warming.
Of the overall agreement between the 14 member countries, Lord Sainsbury said: "I am confident that, with the spirit of cooperation between the member states of ESA, we will be able to press ahead with the exciting missions of ESA's Horizons 2000 programme, such as Planck/First, and that we will be able to include the unique Mars Express mission. This is a new chapter, opening a period of great potential for European space."