PR 47-1998: Mars Express wins unanimous support
4 November 1998All fourteen national delegations in the European Space Agency's Science Programme Committee have backed the project to send a spacecraft to Mars in 2003. Support for Mars Express, as this exciting mission is called, is qualified by concern about the long-term budget of ESA's science programme.
At its meeting in Paris on 2 and 3 November, the Science Policy Committee made its approval of the implementation of Mars Express conditional on sufficient funding for the science programme and no impact on previously approved projects.
"The green light for Mars Express shows that Europe is perfectly capable of seizing special chances in exploring space," said Roger Bonnet, ESA's director of science. "At a cost to ESA of 150 million ECU, Mars Express is the cheapest Mars mission ever, yet its importance and originality are far greater than the price tag suggests."
Bonnet continued: "Mars Express has been advertised by the Science Programme Committee as a test case for new approaches in procuring and managing future science projects, with a view to achieving major savings. In the international arena, Mars Express will confirm Europe's interest in a major target for space research in the new century, when we make our forceful debut at the Red Planet. In fact, Mars Express is designed to be a pivotal element of an international multi-mission, global effort for the exploration of Mars."
Development of the spacecraft will now proceed swiftly, to meet the deadline of an exceptionally favourable launch window early in June 2003. Mars Express will go into orbit around Mars at Christmas 2003. Seven scientific instruments on board will include a high-resolution camera, a range of spectrometers, and a radar to penetrate below the surface. For the first time in the history of the exploration of the Red Planet, scientists can hope to detect sub-surface water, whether it exists in the form of undergound rivers, pools, glaciers or permafrost.
Signs of life on Mars, whether extinct or continuing today, may reveal themselves to a lander carried by Mars Express. This is Beagle 2, a project led by the Open University in the United Kingdom, with contributions from many other European countries. The lander also promises invaluable information about the chemistry of the Martian surface and atmosphere. Beagle 2 is to be independently funded. Some of the necessary funds have already been raised and ESA has agreed with the principal investigator to keep a place for Beagle 2 aboard Mars Express. The financial situation will be verified at a date to be agreed with the mission's prime contractor.