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Europe's mission to Mars hangs in balance

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Top boffins from the European Space Agency (ESA) are to meet in Paris this week to vote on plans for a European mission to Mars.

The BBC reports that delegates will be asked to choose between two options: the original plan, and a scaled up, more expensive mission that would free the mission from reliance on American kit for communications.

This is, for once, not a willy-waving issue. Often, the US and European space scientists suffer from a little competitiveness, but this time there are serious concerns about the sense of sending a mission to Mars that is entirely dependent on someone else's older kit to get its data back to Earth.

The need for an independent communications system was underlined by the demise of NASA's Mars Global Surveyor, which was upgraded to glory in the middle of last year, and has not communicated since November 2006.

But sending communications kit along with the original ExoMars mission means a heavier spacecraft, which in turn means a bigger launch rocket, a more complex landing system, and that is where the costs start to pile up.

Bruno Gardini, a member of the ExoMars project team, says the ESA's goal is to maximise scientific return on its investment.

But ExoMars is more than an isolated mission - it is part of the Aurora project, in which ESA hopes to put European astronauts on Mars. The future of this mission will, in a sense, determine the future of European space exploration.

If tomorrow's vote goes in favour of the heavy lifter option, the ExoMars mission will be able to take additional instruments, too: a geophysical package and remote orbital sensing of the red planet would become possibilities. ®

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