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French Plan to Sample Mars, Solar Wind

Mars looms large in the future of the French space agency CNES, which yesterday held a press conference in Paris to unveil its plans for the next decade.

Mars Express, approved last November by the ESA (ScienceNOW, 21 November 1997), is set for launch in 2003. It will consist of an orbiter and several landers, one of which will analyze soil samples to search for traces of life on Mars. The $135 million project is relatively cheap because much of the scientific payload, including landers, had been developed for the failed Russian-led MARS 96 mission.

A second proposed mission, slated for launch in 2005, is a joint project with NASA to bring back the first-ever sample of Martian rocks. Dubbed "Mars Sample Return," the mission would cost CNES $300 million. The agency will furnish part of the scientific payload and develop the "interplanetary bus" that would orbit the planet and return to Earth with harvested rocks. Still under discussion for Mars Sample Return are small geophysical stations that the orbiter would scatter across the Martian surface to listen for seismic activity. "Scientists are very interested because they will be able to find out whether Mars has a solid core or not," says director general Gérard Brachet.

Another idea on the drawing board at CNES is a spacecraft that would fly close to the Sun and sample the solar wind. "This got a favorable recommendation [from scientists], and will certainly go into a study phase," says Alan-Henry Gabriel, director of the Institut d'Astrophysique Spatiale in Orsay, near Paris. To keep mission costs low, CNES plans to assemble the probe from a basic framework for satellites, called Proteus. For other future planetary missions, CNES is discussing a new program featuring "microsatellites" that could start in 2001, Gabriel says.