Europe's space scientists have come up with almost 30 different proposals for experiments to accompany the European Space Agency's proposed Mars Express mission.
Mars Express, due to launch in 2003, could be the first of a new wave of relatively cheap European space projects. Money for the mission has yet to be agreed finally, but scientists have been invited to submit ideas for experiments. The agency has to whittle down the proposals to about ten, which will then have to find funding.
Scientists from each of the UK's major space science universities are thought to be involved in submissions, which were presented this week at a two-day workshop in London.
If the mission goes ahead, ESA is likely to pay about Pounds 100 million to build and launch the spacecraft. It will be up to individual countries to pay for the experiments.
Few countries have set aside money for instruments because they had short notice of the project. But UK scientists hope that some cash may be found if there is an increase in the science budget following the comprehensive spending review. They will also seek funds from private sources, including the City.
Colin Pillinger of the Open University is behind one of the proposals, which hopes to put a lander on Mars to search for signs of past life. He said: "If money is found for science in the spending review, we think Mars Express has an excellent case. It is something the public is interested in. Just look at when the American Pathfinder landed. We want to address the fundamental question of whether we are alone or not."