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Aurora rattles tin for space exploration

Scientists say government must chip in

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Scientists will today argue the case for UK involvement in Aurora, the European Space Agency's mission to explore space beyond Earth's orbit, aiming first for the moon, and then Mars.

The UK has already contributed to the planning phases of the programme - identifying likely missions and so on - through the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council [PPARC]. Now, the ESA has asked for participating nations to commit an extra €39m to keep the programme going over the next 18 months. It has asked for answers by the end of September this year.

Professor Ian Halliday, PPARC Chief Executive said that the science case for Aurora is very strong, but that PPARC doesn't have unlimited funds, and would need government help: "Time is not on our side, we need to decide pretty soon, otherwise our expertise will be eroded and we will be overtaken by others."

Scientists including Professor John Zarnecki of the Open University, Dr. Sarah Dunkin from the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and Vice President of the Royal Astronomical Society and Dr. Mike Healy, Director Earth Observation, Navigation and Science at EADS Astrium have all lent their support to the programme. They will make their presentations to a panel of government officials, including representatives of the Parliamentary Space Committee, at this year's International Farnborough Air show.

Dr. Dunkin said that unless the UK got involved in exciting space science now, the country could lose a generation of scientists. "There's a real and present danger that our younger scientists will simply up sticks and move to other countries that are involved," she said.

Prof. Zarnecki argued that Aurora will deliver world class science, and said that UK scientists had a chance to take a lead role. Dr. Healy agreed: "We have acknowledged leadership in entry, descent and landing systems and these will be key technologies required for Aurora. Not to capitalise on such technology would be a complete waste of all the expertise that went into the Beagle and [Cassini] Huygens Landers."

Member states, including the UK, will have to decide whether to participate in the full Aurora programme by the next ESA Ministerial meeting planned for June 2005. ®

Related links

The PPARC press announcement

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Mission to map the Aurorae launches 26 July
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