The European Space Agency has approved the go-ahead for the Mars Express orbiter mission. The launch, scheduled for 2003, will include a UK-built lander if funds can be raised to develop the spacecraft.

The lander, called the Beagle 2, would be the most high profile UK space project since the ill-fated Blue Streak launch programme was abandoned in the early 1960s.

The Mars Express will carry a range of instruments, including a radar able to penetrate below the surface. The lander would carry a suite of small experiments to seek evidence of possible past life on the Red Planet. It includes a capability to burrow under the soil and bring out small samples for analysis on the craft. The approval gives the go-ahead for design definition. A decision on full development is set for late 1999. Independent funding is sought for the $40 million Beagle 2.

Matra Marconi Space is leading the design of the 60kg spacecraft aided by Professor Colin Pillinger, originator of the lander concept.

Source: Flight International