JAMES REYNOLDS, SCIENCE CORRESPONDENT
SCIENCE fiction could soon become science fact after Britain's space scientists yesterday threw their full weight behind an ambitious proposal to explore the solar system with plans to land astronauts on Mars by 2033.
Lord Sainsbury, the science minister, announced that the UK is contributing £5 million to help pave the way for the Aurora programme which will finally allow astronauts to boldly go where no others have yet set foot - on the red planet.
The pledge effectively gives Britain a guaranteed place among the front rank European Space Agency participants to explore the frontiers of our own solar system. Donated by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, the money will go towards defining a road map for Aurora and starting work on the programme's first robotic missions.
Speaking in London, Lord Sainsbury said: "Space exploration always has been a voyage of discovery and today could be the start of another exciting journey which greatly expands our knowledge of the world in which we live." He said the purpose of Aurora was "to stretch the imagination" and inspire new generations to take an interest in science or pursue it as a career.
Officials at the European Space Agency had set a September deadline for member countries to confirm their commitment to Aurora. The present programme involves landing a robot rover on the surface of Mars as early as 2009, to be followed by a sample-return mission to bring Martian rock back to Earth.
British scientists say the UK is ideally placed to play a leading role in Aurora. The ill-fated Beagle 2 probe, which vanished while attempting to land on Mars last Christmas, was filled with state-of-the-art British technology. Despite the mission's failure, scientists say it would be tragic to waste the Beagle 2 know-how.
But the financial commitment is only a first step, and experts say playing a full part in Aurora could demand an investment from the UK of about £35 million a year over a period of five years. Professor Ian Halliday, chief executive of PPARC, said: "Aurora is an exciting programme of space exploration to unravel the mysteries of our immediate cosmos. Importantly the UK can make a real contribution both scientifically and industrially."
A fully costed and defined Aurora programme should be completed by 2006.