The European Space Agency (ESA) says it has approved studies of a mission, called the Mars Express, to land a craft on the surface of the planet Mars to analyse its soil for signs of life.
The international frenzy over "life on Mars" has meant that the Mars Express has gate-crashed its way to the top of ESA's science agenda, much to the annoyance of many Euro scientists.
The craft, which could be launched in May 2003, would be the first dedicated to detailed in-situ analysis of Mars - before a similar mission is launched by the USA.
The Mars lander, called the Beagle 2, will be dedicated to exiobiology with an integrated package of experiments to look for evidence of possible past life on the Red Planet.
The exiobiology lander package is being studied by an international consortium.
It is led by Professor Colin Pillinger of the United Kingdom's Open University Planetary Sciences Research Consortium, in conjunction with the University of Leicester Space Science Centre, also in the UK, with co-operation from France, Germany, Italy, Finland, Holland, Austria and Russia.
The instrument suite will include a drill to provide samples from the depths of Mars, not exposed to the harsh oxidising conditions on the surface. Samples would be investigated for the presence of organic molecules indicative of life processes and other tell-tale signs of biological activity.
The Mars Express would also include a Mars orbiter to survey the planet and possibly other landers dedicated to other scientific disciplines, especially geochemical analysis of the upper surface. This mission approach will ensure the Mars Express is not another "all the eggs in one basket" space mission.
ESA says it is willing to pay $123 million for the mission but the lander would have to be funded separately by the countries conducting the study.
The space agency says it can contemplate the mission because within the member states, there already exists instrumentation appropriate to the task and it incurs virtually no development costs.
The Open University has, for example, developed an evolved gas analyser for ESA's funded Rosetta mission to land on a comet and sample its soil, and this is a strong contender for a key life detection experiment on any Mars lander.
Source: Flight Daily News