ESA asks for Mars, but not moon

May 7, 1999

Europe's science ministers meet in Brussels next week to decide the future of the continent's space programme. Issues under discussion include the planned Mars Express mission and the United Kingdom's involvement in the International Space Station.

The European Space Agency meeting, the first at ministerial level for four years, will have to agree a budget to cover ESA's scientific programmes and general running costs.

ESA has proposed a main budget of e2.7 billion (Pounds 1.8 billion) for 1999 to 2003, of which the UK pays about 16 per cent. This will allow it to proceed with Mars Express, a European mission to Mars in 2003.

Countries will also have to decide which optional programmes to sign up to. Top of the UK's shopping list is likely to be the new Earth-observation science programme, while science minister Lord Sainsbury will also have the chance to sign up to ESA's programme to put experiments on the International Space Station.

The British National Space Centre has undertaken a full review of the UK's lack of involvement with the space station. The decision on whether to get on board is now with prime minister Tony Blair.

Member countries are expected to try to reduce the main budget, although it seems unlikely that Mars Express will be scrapped. More likely are efforts to cut ESA's costs or delay other missions.

An ESA spokesman said of the proposed budget: "We are not asking the moon, but a reasonable budget. All the economies that can be done have been done."

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