New costs jeopardise Mars mission

Click to follow
A POTENTIALLY fatal blow has been dealt to Britain's attempts at beating America in the race to find evidence of life on Mars.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has, at the eleventh hour, increased the price tag of sending a British robot to Mars, which jeopardises the future of the space mission.

A consortium of scientists, industry and government representatives had thought the mission finalised. Britain was to send a robotic lander to the red planet using ESA's Mars Express spacecraft, which is scheduled for launch in 2003, two years before America's attempt to put a roving vehicle on Mars in the search for life.

But the consortium has now been told that it needs to raise an additional pounds 5m on top of the pounds 25m required by the space agency, according to Professor Colin Pillinger, the professor of astronomy at the Open University and the architect of the project.

Mars Express was originally designed to place a space probe in orbit around Mars, but Professor Pillinger persuaded the ESA to consider including a lander the size of a television set and weighing no more than 60kg. The roving vehicle, called Beagle 2 after the ship that carried Charles Darwin on the voyage that inspired the theory of evolution, would crash- land on to the rocky terrain of Mars, using airbags to cushion the impact.

The plan was for a roving "mole" to dig under Martian rocks and boulders, the most likely sites for any evidence of life. The mole would then returned to the lander, where a mini laboratory would analysethe soil samples in situ and send the data sent back to mission control - a cheaper option than returning soil samples to Earth, as planned by the American National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa).

Professor Pillinger said that the ESA wants the extra pounds 5m to pay the salaries of the additional ground staff it needs to monitor the orbit and soft landing of Beagle 2.

The original plan for Mars Express was for the spacecraft to enter a relatively simple orbit around Mars after a seven-month journey covering 50 million miles at speeds of up to 25,000mph.

However, Beagle 2 requires a more careful approach and gradual deceleration, using the Martian atmosphere for "aero-braking". ESA said this means greater investment in technical staff at ground control.

Alan Wells, professor of space technology at the University of Leicester, which would have helped to build Beagle 2, said that the additional communications costs should be part of ESA payments for infrastructure. "I don't accept the ESA should put the cost for this on the payload. It is another hurdle we have to face," Professor Wells said.

ESA meets next week to decide whether Beagle 2 will be included in Mars Express. However, Roger Bonnet, ESA's science director, said the whole mission may have to be scrapped if the agency does not have an increase in funding for next year. "Mars Express is a hostage to our ongoing budget negotiations," he said.

ESA has already signed a deal with Nasa to become involved in the American attempts to bring samples of Mars to Earth, which some experts believe may be the final death warrant of Beagle 2.