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The European Space Agency is asking member states to fund a two-year feasibility study into joining forces with the Russians to build Kliper, a new people-carrying space plane that will take over missions to the International Space Station.

The Russians have designed the plane as a replacement for their Soyuz capsules - which have been in use since the 1960s - and are also planning for the post-Shuttle era.

Ministers are set to meet at ESA in early December, where they will be asked for between €30-40m. Development and operations are likely to need another €100m per year.

Expensive as this sounds, the project would give Europe more autonomy in space - providing a route to exploring the moon that is not dependent on the USA, for instance. It is uncertain how the UK in particular will respond to the request for funds. The current space policy is that unmanned exploration is the most efficient way of doing good space science. Manned flights are not considered a priority. ®

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