There and back again. European scientists recommended the ESA return to Mars with a major mission in 2011.

European Space Agency Sees Red

LONDON--European scientists last week urged the European Space Agency (ESA) to return to Mars with a major mission in 2011. More than 100 researchers convened at a workshop in Birmingham, United Kingdom, to define new missions that will, among other goals, study geology and seek out signs of life on the red planet. Big issues remain unsettled, however, such as whether the missions will receive funding and how they will be coordinated with the ambitious NASA Mars program.

The scientists considered three proposals for the mission and finally recommended plucking elements from each and rolling them into one. The mission would include a drill to take samples of the Mars soil at a depth of up to 2 meters--a plan NASA does not currently have on its agenda. The mission would also include a rover with sensors to look at ratios of isotopes for traces of past or present life and a seismograph to detect possible "marsquakes" that would show the planet is geologically active.

Before the plans get more specific, ESA needs to get some of its member countries to pony up for the mission, which carries a price tag of $650 million. Like most of ESA's budget, contributions to the planetary exploration program, called Aurora, are optional. The overall budget is "a very challenging target," said Aurora's head, Bruno Gardini, at a press conference here.

"We are trying very hard to get support from NASA to reduce the cost and risk of the mission," Gardini said. Canada, Japan, and Russia might also play parts in the mission, he said. "We are very open to collaborations."

Doug McCuistion, director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program and an observer at the workshop, says, "It's very important that they were able to narrow their options so they can go forward." Aurora faces its first big test in December, when ESA's governing council will vote on funding.

Related site
ESA's Aurora website