The approval of Europe’s Aurora Exploration Program by ministers of the European Space Agency (ESA) member states at the recent council meeting in Berlin confirms, at the highest political level, the willingness of Europe to play a significant role in the global efforts to further the exploration and understanding of our solar system, and in particular of Mars and the Moon.

Crowning four years of preparatory and definition work and six months of intense discussions and negotiations, Aurora was approved unanimously as an ESA optional program. Of the 17 ESA members states, 13, along with Canada, subscribed to the two elements making up the program: the Core activities and ExoMars.

With the ambition to make exploration a project for the benefit of Europe, its citizens and its economy, Aurora embodies the current European long-term vision of space exploration profiting all humankind, with Mars as the most prominent object of interest and the Moon as an unavoidable stepping stone. Aurora had to accommodate member states’ priorities and short-term constraints. The positive outcome of the ministerial council confirms that these conditions were satisfied. The important commitment by Italy to the Aurora program is part of a broader Italian interest in exploration and planetary missions. This leadership is as important as the collective support from other European nations.

The first European rover to land on the surface of Mars, ExoMars, was overwhelmingly supported by member states, mainly Italy, followed by the United Kingdom, France and Germany. Subscriptions exceeded the financial envelope required for the baseline configuration for the proposed mission.

Slated for launch in 2011, ExoMars is primarily an exobiology mission and will deploy a high-mobility rover carrying a suite of instruments, dubbed Pasteur. Its most interesting feature, however is the drill that will reach the Mars subsurface, down to as far as 2 meters, where possible traces of extinct or extant life may be better preserved. The development of an orbiter with relay capabilities and additional science opportunities will be studied in the coming months but remains subject to availability of funding.

The technological development that will make ExoMars possible will represent a key legacy for a future European role in a Mars sample return mission.

The Core program represents the framework where preparatory and definition work for future missions will be carried out, along with architecture studies, technology development activities and an awareness-raising effort.

Further definition and preparatory activities for a Mars Sample Return mission attracted strong support by member states and these activities will be pursued at a sustained pace, also by seeking international involvement. Mars Sample Return has been repeatedly confirmed as one of the priority missions by the scientific community. Building on the technological legacy of ExoMars and backed by the strong commitment of Italy and the United Kingdom, Europe intends to be a strong driver behind the implementation of a sample return mission from Mars.

With a new round of high-level programmatic decisions foreseen in 2008, the decision in Berlin by the European ministers lays the foundation for the definition of the European contribution to the exploration of the Moon and Mars, in line with the original Aurora vision and aspiration.

Europe’s major international partners are still defining their exploration plans, with the exception of space transportation elements, and discussions on a coordinated approach to a global exploration endeavor are still in an embryonic phase.

Through ESA and its member states, Europe is firmly committed to making its contribution to this global endeavor , while at the same time acting proactively to facilitate the conditions for the largest possible international participation and involvement in space exploration activities.

International cooperation is the key both for the implementation and evolution of the European program and also, in its connection with other international partners’ plans, the U.S. Vision for Space Exploration above all.

Europe’s ambition is to work out a comprehensive, long-term exploration strategy where a degree of independence goes along with a significant commonality with NASA’s and other partners’ plans.

In the coming months, further steps will be taken to enhance the coordination mechanism for activities related to missions to the Moon and Mars. The international partners can count on ESA’s determination to make space exploration a truly global and sustainable endeavor for the benefit of humankind, where all interested nations can find a specific role commensurate to their available resources.

Daniel Sacotte is ESA’s director of human spaceflight, microgravity and exploration. Simona Di Pippo is chairwoman of ESA’s human spaceflight, microgravity and exploration program board.