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The European Space Agency (ESA) has confirmed that it plans to send another mission to land on Mars, as part of the pan-European Aurora programme to explore the solar system.

The main objectives of the €500m mission will be to search for past or present Martian life; to learn more about the source of the atmospheric methane, and find out whether Mars is still seismically active. ESA also wants to drill into the surface of the planet, something that has not been done before. The robotic exploration will be a prelude to a 2016 sample-return mission.

The mission would blast off from Kourou spaceport in French Guiana in 2011 aboard a Soyuz launcher. After a two year journey, it would arrive in orbit around Mars.

Bruno Gardini, Aurora's program manager, explained that the journey would take so long because planetary positions in 2011 will be "extremely unfavourable". He added that this way, the mission will arrive after the worst of the dust storm season, minimising any danger to the lander.

Mark Sims, chair of PPARC's Aurora committee said that it was still to early to say exactly where on Mars the mission would be aimed, but added that it would be "nice to go for one of the methane hotspots".

The mission will involve multiple tests for the presence of life. Professor Colin Pillinger said: "There is no point having only one piece of the jigsaw. NASA also has the ambition [to discover life on Mars in 2011], so the question is, whose experiments will be best?"

The mission will also test for seismic activity. This will help scientists determine whether the methane in the atmosphere is there as a result of biological or geological activity.

At a two day conference in Birmingham, over 100 European and Canadian scientists narrowed the list of potential missions down to three: Exo-Mars, a lander and orbiter mission; Exo-Mars Lite, like Exo-Mars, but without the orbiter; and BeagleNet, a twin-lander mission, based on the technology aboard the ill-fated Beagle 2.

The shortlisted missions will form the basis of a recommendation that will be sent to the ESA's Council meeting in December 2005. Funding for the mission has yet to be approved, but the UK is likely to be asked for between 15 and 20 per cent of the total cost. ®

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