Mars Express Gets Green Light

When a launcher for a Russian-led mission carrying the Mars '96 spacecraft exploded a year ago over the Pacific Ocean, it wiped out all plans for planetary exploration at the European Space Agency (ESA). Now, ESA's Science Program Committee is trying to make up the loss: In a decision last week, ESA approved a fast-track plan to launch a new Mars mission, Mars Express, in mid-2003.

The spacecraft will consist of an orbiter and several landers, one of which will search for traces of past or present life on Mars. ESA will provide about $175 million for the orbiter and launch; participating countries will pay for the landers and instruments. France, for example, has already promised funds to its space agency for exploring Mars.

"The mission is devised to recover ... Mars '96 science," says Marcello Coradini, ESA's coordinator of solar-system missions. And it may do more. In addition to instruments developed for Mars '96, he says, Mars Express will carry a subsurface-penetrating radar that can look for signs of conditions that might support life, such as evidence of water.

Coradini says that the Mars Express scientific program has wide support and is "not duplicated by any other missions" in other countries. But some astronomers see the Mars mission as competing for funds with other ambitious space projects at the budget-strapped ESA (Science, 5 September, p. 1427). The agency will have to "make very considerable savings on other missions," worries astronomer Michael Rowan-Robinson of Imperial College in London. But he agrees that ESA can't be blamed for wanting to catch up with NASA's "string of missions to Mars."