Setback in race to find life on Mars

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The Independent Online
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 increased the price of sending a British robot to Mars, which jeopardises a planned 2003 space mission.

A consortium of scientists, industry, and government, believed it was almost home and dry with a British plan to send a robotic lander to the red planet, using ESA's Mars Express spacecraft. It is scheduled for launch in 2003, two years before America's attempt to put a roving vehicle on Mars in the search for life.

Having received firm financial commitments for most of the pounds 25m required by ESA, the consortium has now been told it needs to raise an extra pounds 5m,according to Professor Colin Pillinger, 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 ESA to consider including a lander the size of a television set weighing no more than 132lbs.

The lander, called Beagle 2 after the ship that carried Charles Darwin on the voyage that inspired the theory of evolution, would land on the rocky terrain of Mars, using airbags to cushion the impact.

A roving "mole" would dig under Martian rocks and boulders, the most likely sites to find evidence of life. The mole would then return to the lander where a mini laboratory would analyse the soil samples 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 ESA wanted the extra pounds 5m to pay the salaries of the additional ground staff it needed to monitor the orbit and 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 50m miles at speeds of up to 25,000mph.

However, Beagle 2 required a more careful approach and gradual deceleration, using the Martian atmosphere for "aerobraking". ESA said this meant greater investment in technical staff at ground control.

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

ESA meets next week to decide whether Beagle 2 will be included in Mars Express. However, Roger Bonnet, ESA's science director warned that 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 right now to our ongoing budget negotiations," he said.