PR 22-1999: Europe is going to Mars
11 June 1999The European Space Agency's Mars Express mission has won unanimous approval. It will be the first mission Europe has sent to the red planet.The Agency's Science Programme Committee (SPC) approved Mars Express after ESA's Council, meeting at ministerial level in Brussels on 11 and 12 May, had agreed the level of the science budget for the next 4 years, just enough to make the mission affordable. "Mars Express is a mission of opportunity and we felt we just had to jump in and do it. We are convinced it will produce first-rate science," says Hans Balsiger, SPC chairman.
As well as being a first for Europe in Mars exploration, Mars Express will pioneer new, cheaper ways of doing space science missions. "With a total cost of just 150 million euros, Mars Express will be the cheapest Mars mission ever undertaken," says Roger Bonnet, ESA's Director of Science.
Mars Express will be launched in June 2003. When it arrives at the red planet six months later, it will begin to search for water and life. Seven instruments, provided by space research institutes throughout Europe, will make observations from the main spacecraft as it orbits the planet. Just before the spacecraft arrives, it will release a small lander, provided by research institutes in the UK, that will journey on to the surface to look for signs of life.
The lander is called Beagle 2 after the ship in which Charles Darwin sailed round the world in search of evidence supporting his theory of evolution. But just as Darwin had to raise the money for his trip, so the search is on for public and private finance for Beagle 2. "Beagle 2 is an extremely important element of the mission," says Bonnet.
Europe's space scientists have envisaged a mission to Mars for over fifteen years. But limited funding has prevented previous proposals from going ahead. The positioning of the planets in 2003, however, offers a particularly favourable passage to the red planet - an opportunity not to be missed. Mars Express will be joined by an international flotilla of spacecraft that will also be using this opportunity to work together on scientific questions and pave the way for future exploration.
ESA is now able to afford Mars Express because it will be built more quickly and cheaply than any other comparable mission. It will be the first of the Agency's new flexible missions, based on maximum reuse of technology off-the-shelf and from other missions (the Rosetta cometary mission in this case). Mars Express will explore the extent to which innovative working practices, now made possible by the maturity of Europe's space industry, can cut mission costs and the time from concept to launch: a new kind of relationship with industrial partners is starting. "We are adopting a new approach to management by delegating to Matra Marconi Space (the prime contractor) responsibility for the whole project. This means we can reduce the ESA's management costs," says Bonnet.
Despite the knock-down price, however, the future of Mars Express has hung in the balance because of the steady erosion of ESA's space science budget since 1995. Last November, the SPC said the mission could go ahead only if it could be afforded without affecting missions already approved, especially the FIRST infra-red observatory and the Planck mission to measure the cosmic microwave background.
On 19/20 May, the SPC, which has the ultimate decision over the Agency's science missions, agreed that the level of resources allowed was just sufficient to allow Mars Express to go ahead. "To do such an ambitious mission for so little money is a challenge and we have decided to meet," says Balsiger.
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