Europe set to put the first man on Mars

September 28, 2001

The first flag planted by man in the parched red soil of Mars could bear Europe's ring of yellow stars.

The ambitious landing has been suggested by scientists as a follow-up to carrying samples of Martian rock to Earth.

Preliminary proposals for a series of pioneering Mars missions will be presented in mid-November to a meeting of European government ministers chaired by UK science minister Lord Sainsbury.

A group of experts brought together by the European Space Agency will ask for £25.2 million from member states to draw up plans for exploring the Solar System over the next 20-25 years.

The Aurora programme has identified Mars as well as asteroids, comets and Jupiter's moon Europa as prime targets for Esa. Hundreds of scientists have fed suggestions into the project.

Colin Pillinger, professor of planetary sciences at the Open University and a member of the group, said: "Europe should focus on Mars and ask the question: are we alone in the Solar System?

"Ultimately, we see this would involve, in 20 to 25 years' time, man setting foot on Mars."

Human space flight specialists engaged in Europe's contribution to the International Space Station are playing an important role in shaping the Aurora programme.

The project will test European scientific and engineering ingenuity to its limit. So far all of Esa's astronauts have been passengers on US or Russian flights, while the agency's first probes to reach the Red Planet - Mars Express and Beagle 2 - will not arrive until December 2003.

The Aurora team will investigate ways round the problems involved in getting people to Mars. These include designing advanced electric propulsion systems, devising protective shielding or therapies to reduce the risk of solar radiation during the three-year mission, finding ways to preserve the health and fitness of the crew and developing new broadband interplanetary communication techniques.

The US space agency Nasa is also looking at the possibility of a manned expedition, while Russian plans, shelved towards the end of the Soviet era, are being reappraised.

Juan Perez-Mercader, director of the Spanish Centre for Astrobiology in Madrid and a member of the Aurora group, said a manned mission seemed prohibitively expensive and that a global effort would be needed for the final push. But he insisted it was a serious goal: "The only way to do a thorough exploration of Mars is to send people there."

In the meantime, the scientists want to see a succession of robot probes visit the Red Planet with parallel studies on life in extreme environments on Earth.

Professor Pillinger was optimistic Esa could return a sample of Martian soil for rigorous testing on Earth. This would enable scientists to look for signs of past extraterrestrial life that are beyond the capability of the landers.

Nasa favours an unmanned Mars sample-return mission that would involve precision landing and the deployment of rovers to scour the surface of the planet for different rock types. This could be ready by 2011, while Esa might be able to launch in 2009.

Professor Pillinger advocates a less exacting approach. The lander would reach the surface in a cocoon of protective airbags and grab a soil sample. This would include a selection of material blown from all altitudes and latitudes on the planet and hence would have a good chance of containing biochemical clues.

The probe would then take off and rendezvous with a mother craft in orbit around Mars to return the cargo to Earth.

Professor Pillinger said Europe's meteoritic community should have the skills to tease the geological and possibly biological story of Mars out of the returned soil.

Analysis would be carried out in isolated laboratory facilities to prevent any alien material from contaminating the environment.

The draft plans will be discussed at Esa's ministerial-level council meeting in Edinburgh. If it decides to support Aurora, a full programme of missions will be brought back to the council in 2004 for approval.

But some space scientists were cautious. Andrew Coates, reader in space physics at University College London's Mullard Space Science Laboratory, said a manned mission would be a huge waste of money.

He said: "It is very ambitious to talk about sending people to Mars, but it is a useful way of trying to explore the technology that might be needed and doing some useful exploration of the Solar System along the way."

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