The European Space Agency (ESA) has approved the launch of Beagle 2, a robotic vehicle to be built in Britain, on its Mars Express mission to explore the red planet in 2003, two years before an American Mars lander will search for evidence of life.
British scientists had feared that Beagle 2 might be dropped after ESA asked for an extra pounds 5m on top of the pounds 25m needed to build the lander.
However, at a meeting ofESA's science programme committee in Paris yesterday, the mission and its lander received unanimous approval although the issue of who will pay the extra pounds 5m remained unresolved.
"We might find ways of providing that some other way," said Paul Murdin, a British scientist who attended the session as part of a delegation from the British National Space Centre. "The spacecraft is going to be designed as if Beagle 2 is on board. That will take us to the end of next year when we start putting the hardware together."
ESA says the extra pounds 5m is needed to pay for the additional ground staff required if the mission carries a vehicle. A lander requires more technicalsupport to ensure it enters the Martian atmosphere in a controlled orbit.
Colin Pillinger, Professor of Astronomy at the Open University and Beagle 2's principal architect, said yesterday's decision means the crucial design stage will now go ahead.
A consortium of universities, industry and government agencies will provide the funds but Professor Pillinger refused to say how much of the pounds 25m has been raised. "Now we are in a position to go forward. I've got enough money to convince ESA that we've financially viable," he said.
A spokesman for ESA said that European ministers must now approve the final mission budget, possibly next year.