Julian Moxon/PARIS

The first contract for the European Space Agency's (ESA) 150 million euro ($161 million) Mars Express programme has been signed with prime contractor Matra Marconi Space.

The 60 million euro contract was awarded despite the programme awaiting full approval, expected at the ESA ministerial meeting in mid-May. The meeting may yet be postponed until December, but ESA's director of scientific programmes, Roger Bonnet, says that the mission is considered so important that "funding of this phase will continue". Any shortfall in funding will be made up by "adjusting other less important missions", he adds.

The deal is the first to be signed under ESA's new "flexible management" system, aimed at reducing both the time and costs of scientific missions. The Mars Express budget, which is about half that of previous such missions, covers the launch, operations, testing and management costs, with major savings arising from the use of spares from the almost simultaneous Rosetta comet lander mission.

Selection of the scientific payloads by ESA was done in parallel, reducing the time to award development contracts from five years to one, while the design and development phase will take fewer than four years, compared with the previous six.

The Mars Express will look for evidence of life on the planet and will deploy a UK-made lander, the Beagle 2, to take measurements at the surface and of geological formations several kilometres below.

Source: Flight International