The UK will support the European Space Agency's Aurora programme. At a press conference in London this morning, Lord Sainsbury, science minister, announced that PPARC, the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, would commit £5m to Aurora's next phase.
Aurora is a pan European bid to explore the solar system, bring back rock samples from Mars, and possibly even send a manned mission to the Red planet by 2033.
"The British have always been explorers," Lord Sainsbury said. "This is an opportunity to rekindle that spirit. This programme will stretch the imagination of the whole country, and inspire a generation of scientists."
It was by no means a foregone conclusion that the UK would get involved. Professor Ian Halliday, PPARC's chief executive, said that the decision to focus on robotic exploration was key to the UK's involvement. He believes that there is no scientific benefit, at this stage in the project, in human space exploration. "The cost is just too high for the scientific return," he said. Fortunately, the latest versions of the Aurora programme are more robot friendly, at least in the near future.
Despite its reservations and preference for robots, PPARC began a consultation earlier this year to look at the potential scientific benefits of the programme. It wanted to make sure that the science was important, timely and exciting, and that it would be science that the UK could take the lead in.
Dr. Sarah Dunkin, vice president of the Royal Astronomical Society, said that the answer to all those questions was an emphatic "yes".
Having decided that this is the case, Professor Halliday said it is vital that the UK is involved from the very earliest stages. This phase of the programme was about designing the first missions, of which there will be three.
First, a lander demonstrator, to prove that the ESA can land a craft on Mars. Second, a rover mission, to do science on the surface of the planet. Finally, there will be a sample return mission.
"This is where we put a rocket on Mars, dig up a bit of Mars and bring it back to Earth. Clearly, this is a non-trivial exercise," Halliday said.
The next stage will be deciding whether to go ahead with the investment. This would mean a commitment of between £10m and £25m per year for ten years, Halliday said. This would be in addition to the £40m annual ESA subscription the UK pays to support basic scientific research.
Dr. Dunkin remarked that if it is to make this commitment, "PPARC will need the support of the scientific community, which I believe it already has, and the backing of the government".
Lord Sainsbury hinted that there might be more cash available in the future, pointing out that the period covered by the programme would extend beyond the next spending review. He said that the Mars Express mission had shown the value of investing in space science. ®