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Germany has signed up to the preparatory phase of the European Space Agency's (ESA) Mars mission, the Aurora project.

During the preparatory phase, partner countries will hammer out agreement on exactly what Aurora's missions to the moon and to other planets should look like. By December, the proposal for the next phase should be ready, with a mission to Mars leaving in 2011 expected to be a central plank of the programme.

Dubbed ExoMars, the mission will send a lander and a rover to the red planet to carry out exobiology and geophysical analysis of the Martian environment. Although it will take off from Earth in 2011, it won't land on Mars until 2013.

David Parker, the Director of Space Science at PPARC and UK lead on the Aurora project explained that although the Germans had been expected to sign up for a while, it is good news that they have done so formally.

"They've put the money in place for the preparatory phase, and have indicated that they will stay involved through the next phases," he told us.

"Germany as a percentage of ESA is around 25 per cent, so it is a big chunk of money. Even if they don't put in quite the full 25 per cent, it is a significant anchor for Aurora. It doesn't directly affect UK decisions about long term participation, but it means that overall, Aurora is more likely to happen."

There has been a healthy and vigorous discussion over the best approach to the form any Aurora missions might take, with the highest profile area of disagreement being over manned vs. robotic flight. The UK is a strong supporter of sending robots, arguing that it is the most cost effective way to do good science.

Germany's decision to commit to Aurora might well shift the balance further in favour of robotic exploration: "Germany is pretty much in line with the UK in terms of supporting robotic exploration of Mars," Parker added. ®

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