One of the great unsolved mysteries of space - whether or not there is, or has ever been, life on Mars - took a major step towards being unravelled following a decision by European governments.
Ministers earlier this month agreed a five-year space budget which should pave the way to send a probe to the red planet in 2003.
The European Space Agency's Mars Express Mission includes a project led by the Open University and Leicester University along with a range of industrial collaborators. Their aim is to put a probe, called Beagle 2, on the spacecraft to hunt for life on Mars.
Director of the Leicester University Space Research Centre, Professor Alan Wells, welcomed the latest move: "This is a great opportunity for UK science and the British public to be involved in a most exciting adventure at the start of the new Millennium.
"The public support is huge. Our task now is to involve all interested parties, government, research councils, our universities and the wider public in the Mars Beagle mission, both as contributors and participants."
Although the UK Government has not announced whether it plans to put funds into the Beagle 2 Lander, Professor Colin Pillinger from the Open University, who heads the UK team, is hopeful that the £25 million needed can be found.
Professor Wells said: "The situation with Beagle is very delicately balanced. The prospects are good for funding and UK support for Beagle is very much enhanced by the approval by ministers of Mars Express.
"The design of Mars Express includes all necessary provisions for the Beagle lander. Also the Mars Express prime contractor, Matra Marconi Space, (Toulouse) has recently reviewed the Beagle design with the Leicester-Open University-industry team and have declared themselves well satisfied on all the technical issues.
"So we have got over two main hurdles, political and technical. The third, and last, hurdle to clear for go-ahead is to gather together the various sources of funding needed to complete the lander project. Some sources are already committed; others are in advanced stages of discussion and negotiation. Procedures are in place for these negotiations to be drawn to a conclusion over the next 4-6 weeks. We have every reason to be optimistic, especially given the wonderful and imaginative outcome from the ESA Ministers meeting in Brussels."
Professor Wells said work would progress to complete the design of the lander in time for the ESA review of the project later this year. A model of the lander was recently shown to HRH The Duke of Edinburgh when he visited the Space Research Centre. Among those backing Beagle 2 are pop stars Blur.
For more information contact Professor Alan Wells on 0116 252 3522.
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