Is there Life On Mars

UK Industry could benefit from a £50m plan to retrieve a sample of Martian soil in a mission proposed for 2009.

Scientists at the Royal Society said the Mars probe, which would fire itself back to earth after collecting material from the planet’s surface, would use similar technology to the UK-built Beagle 2 unit, set to go to Mars in 2003.

Royal Society fellow and Open University planetary scientist Professor Colin Pillinger said: ‘We have the capability to answer these fundamental problems about life on Mars that puzzle people and the technology isn’t all that difficult.’

The proposal will be considered by the UK’s Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, the International Mars Working Group and the European Space Agency, who will all decide their own exploration projects later this year. The probe would require an ESA rocket to reach Mars.

Pillinger believes that many UK firms could benefit, in addition to Beagle 2 collaborators Martin Baker Aircraft, Cape Engineering and Astrium. Its participants estimate that a sample return mission would require a spacecraft twice the size of Beagle 2 – costing up to £50m.

John Thatcher, the Beagle 2 project manager at Astrium said: ‘Technically I think we Brits can do everything – it is all who can fund what. It boils down to that.’

According to Thatcher the UK has the technology base to provide the mission’s descent systems for landing, the electronics, the robotics required to obtain the sample, and the ascent rocket to return the sample to Earth.

But due to the political nature of European government funded ESA projects, benefits to UK industry would be determined by how much the UK government is prepared to commit.

A spokesman for the government’s space committee, the BNSC, said it would certainly consider Professor Pillinger’s proposals.