GROUND-BREAKING space projects planned by the European Space Agency could suffer if the agency also launches a mission to Mars, scientists claim.
ESA, which faces a cut this year of about 3 per cent, last week announced Mars Express, a possible mission to the planet in 2003.
But British scientists involved in other ESA projects fear this may threaten existing missions.
Some suggest that a Mars mission, rather than representing the best science, might be an attempt by the ESA to attract funding.
Richard Hills, professor of radio astronomy at Cambridge University, said the discovery of evidence of life on Mars would be exciting, but added: "There was a thorough review last year in which Planck, a mission to study the Big Bang, was selected in preference to a mission to Mars. If ESA decision-making was reduced to a competition in hype, then we would all miss out."
ESA hopes to save cash by merging two missions, Planck and FIRST, the latter to study the earliest galaxies. Studies into the viability of a merger have yet to start. But even if one took place, Professor Hills fears that a Mars project would squeeze Planck and FIRST.
An ESA spokesman said Planck and FIRST would only be merged if the science in both was safeguarded. He added that existing missions would not lose out if a Mars mission went ahead.