The European Space Agency plans to launch an exobiology rover mission to Mars in 2009 as part of its Aurora programme to prepare for possible future human expeditions.

The ExoMars mission, scheduled for go-ahead in 2004, will include the Pasteur payload of instruments to characterise the Martian biological environment.

The potential design features a Mars orbiter, descent module and solar-powered rover equipped with a drilling and sampling system. It is possible ExoMars could work in tandem with a proposed French Netlander project involving a network of small landers.

Launch of ESA's Mars Express orbiter - and the UK's piggyback Beagle 2 lander - has been delayed from 23 May to 6 June to allow an unidentified component to be replaced. The window for launch by Soyuz-Fregat from Baikonur closes on 23 June. The launch window for the first of NASA's twin Mars Exploration Rovers opens on 30 May, with that for the second rover opening on 25 June. Beagle is due to land on Mars by year-end with the rovers arriving early next year. Beagle will operate for six months, with each rover having a three-month mission.

ESA has, meanwhile, narrowed the choice of new mission scenarios for its Rosetta comet explorer to three, and is considering a possible switch to a Russian Proton launcher, after the original Ariane 5 flight was cancelled in January.

One scenario has Rosetta flying to its original target, the comet Wirtanen, after a January 2004 launch, while launch opportunities in February 2004 and February 2005 would aim the craft at the comet Churymov-Gerasimenko. The favoured February 2004 option involves three gravity-assisted flybys of the Earth.

Source: Flight International