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As NASA greenlights its next Shuttle launch (8 June, for those keeping track), 14 international space agencies have agreed to cooperate on a rather more grandiose mission: bringing samples of the Martian surface back to Earth.

The group, which includes NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), has published a document, entitled The Global Exploration Strategy: The Framework for Co-ordination. This sets out a non-binding agreement of common space goals, and how the participating nations will cooperate to achieve them.

Malcolm Wicks, the UK's science and innovation minister, said: "During this century we are sure to see some fantastic voyages of discovery as robots and humans venture further into our Solar System. What they learn will excite and inspire new generations to get involved in science and create new technology that could benefit the whole economy.

"I welcome the fact that the UK can use this to inform our national plans while joining together in a truly global endeavour."

NASA described the agreement as "an important step in an evolving process towards a comprehensive global approach to space exploration".

It is an important agreement. It is hard to imagine any single country having the balls or the budget to fund a there-and-back trip to Mars on its own.

But for all the backslapping and self congratulatory smiles, this will not be an easy alliance. Although China and Russia have agreed to cooperate on a mission to the moon, Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, says NASA has already rejected its offer of collaboration on exploring the lunar surface.

Add to this the rivalry (not always a bad thing, we'll note) that already exists between European and American scientists, and you have all the ingredients for a spectacular fall out.

The participating agencies are: Asi (Italy), BNSC (UK), CNES (France), CNSA (China), CSA (Canada), CSIRO (Australia), DLR (Germany), Esa (European Space Agency), ISRO (India), JAXA (Japan), KARI (South Korea), NASA (USA), NSAU (Ukraine), Roscosmos (Russia). ®

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