The European Space Agency (ESA) has approved the start of assessment studies of the first four robotic missions under the agency's Mars exploration programme, Aurora.

The studies involve two Flagship missions - Exo-Mars, a surface rover to characterise the Martian biological environment, and a Mars sample return mission - and two Arrow missions, featuring an Earth re-entry capsule and a Mars aerocapture craft.

Flagship missions are intended to advance the scientific and technical knowledge in preparation for a human mission. The less-complex Arrow operations employ cheaper technology and are intended to reduce the risk involved in the Flagship missions.

These programmes are part of a long-term, two-phase campaign, designed firstly to demonstrate technologies during 2005-15 for possible human exploration of Mars, and secondly to participate in an international manned landing on Mars before 2030.

Prototypes of spacecraft intended to land on Mars have been tested on Mount Etna, in Sicily. The craft were developed by the Italian Space Agency, Alenia Spazio, Germany's DLR, ESA and Italy's Turin University.

Source: Flight International