Towards a manned mission to Mars
By Professor Colin Pillinger for CNN
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(CNN) -- At the beginning of 2001, with Mars Express (MEx) and Beagle 2 progressing well towards what everyone thought would be an epic journey to Mars, the European Space Agency (ESA) called together a group of 10 Experts in Space Exploration.
A few lively meetings later these experts came up with their vision for Europe exploring the solar system during the 21st century.
The plan, pre-empting President Bush by nearly two years, was to go to Mars with robots and follow up with a Mars sample return.
Those of us scientists in the group who worked on the Apollo lunar samples saw this as the key to understanding our neighbor in space and a vital step towards the ultimate dream of placing Europeans on the Red Planet perhaps by 2030.
The concept was ambitious, but it was adopted by ESA and became known as "Aurora", then "Inspirations," and now simply "Exploration."
Nearly five years on even the first step of the vision remains unrealized. I must accept some of the blame. Beagle 2, like two-thirds of all Mars probes, did not call in from Mars on Christmas Day 2003. But a little set back like a lost lander should not discourage visionaries.
Whereas the Beagle 2 lander did not realize the returns afforded to Charles Darwin by its illustrious predecessor, HMS Beagle, MEx, the orbiter has been a phenomenal success.
Its discoveries include water icecaps on Mars, a sub-surface ice ocean, recent volcanic activity and even methane and formaldehyde, possibly biological gases, in the atmosphere.
Nevertheless in the aftermath of an almost euphoric MEx science conference a few weeks ago, we got the first indication all was not well with our beloved vision of Aurora.
With the community, as you might rightly expect, champing at the bit for a return to Mars, it has transpired that the "Exploration" program has become only one mission before 2016.
Aghast, the community came up with a new vision -- a mission which must have the following capabilities: mobility, subsurface sampling, Beagle 2 life detection experiments and a seismometer to listen for Mars-quakes.
This mission, whatever it is, has to happen by 2011 so that Europe can demonstrate competence and join NASA in a venture to return Martian samples in 2016 (only 50 years after some of those Apollo pioneers suggested we go for it). But we are already hearing rumors that 2011 has slipped to 2013.
There is less than six months to get Exploration's first Mars mission planned and approved, so we can ask the ESA Science Ministers' Council to provide the funds when they meet in Berlin in December.
We need to get on and find a strategy we can all support. As was said at Charles Darwin's funeral, "Where there is no vision the people perish."
-- Colin Pillinger is professor of planetary sciences at the Open University. He was the lead scientist for the Beagle 2 mission to Mars in 2003 and is currently working on a successor to Beagle.
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