Europe plays a major part in future Mars exploration
22 Nov 2000Starting with Mars Express and Beagle 2 and ending with a possible Sample Return Mission, Europe will be making a major contribution to Mars exploration over the next two decades. Europe's plans complement the new programme recently announced by NASA in the wake of last year's mission losses.
"The European programme looks very promising. Mars Express is the most complex remote sensing mission around - and Beagle 2 is the most sophisticated science lab in the whole bunch of missions so far approved or outlined," says Risto Pellinen, director of the Geophysical Research Department at the Finnish Meteorological Institute and chairman of the International Mars Exploration Working Group (IMEWG).
The IMEWG met in Helsinki on 9-10 November to discuss the latest plans. With 40 attendees from 13 countries, it was the largest ever meeting of the group. Rather than act as a deterrent, the recent failures are opening up more opportunities for international collaboration. "Nobody can run their own Mars exploration programme. I think the mishaps have taught us that," says Pellinen.
The new programme is spread over more years than NASA's earlier plans to allow time to develop the technologies needed for the climax, a sample return mission sometime after 2010. "The slower pace may also help get more people involved," says Pellinen.
Plans up to 2003 are firm. Those in 2005 and 2007 are reasonably secure. Beyond, however, they represent a preferred strategy rather than a definite programme. In outline, they are as follows:
NASA, DLR (the German Space Agency) and ESA are all considering possible supplementary missions to this plan. NASA is considering a small "Scout" mission for launch in 2007 and DLR may decide to send a microsatellite to Mars. Spares developed for Mars Express could possibly be used to build another mission to the red planet in 2005, when ESA has a gap in its science mission launch programme. "The Mars Express platform is made for Mars. So it is worth seeing if there is any way of using this opportunity," says Pellinen.
How should the programme look after 2010? This will be the subject of the next IMEWG meeting in Florida on 9-10 April, the launch date of Mars Odyssey. One issue for discussion will be the balance to be struck between conducting more in situ observations and really going for sample return.