“The European Space Agency will be the first space agency to reach all planets in the inner solar system.” That was the assurance of Piero Messina, speaking for ESA’s Aurora Exploration Programme at the last Earth & Space Expo lunchtime seminar in Brussels.

But is the exploration of space a race? Is NASA negligible? Messina was not denying the leadership of the USA, but he pointed out that today’s NASA has only been interested in sending humans to new frontiers in space since President Bush declared it his personal goal just one year ago. “ESA has had humans in space on its mind for much longer than that,” he said. “Europe is second to none.”

Europe in space

The European Space Agency has had many technological successes in its exploration of space. The names of the satellites and spacecraft that have left Earth’s orbit with the ESA logo on their sides are well-known: Rosetta, Cassini-Huygens, and the Mars Express. The next mission to Mars will be searching not just for rock and dust samples, but for signs of life.

The Aurora Programme planned to land humans on Mars by 2033, but Earth-bound politics since 2003 have already altered that timescale. The space station that has only just begun to be assembled should have been completed by now, so human footprints in the dust of Mars are further away than ever.

But Messina was adamant that the programme would continue to completion, with Mars as the primary, but not only, goal. The schedule for the next twenty years includes trial return flights, automated missions and a supplies dump. Robots and humans will work together to make progress possible.

Why spend all that money?

The Aurora programme is driven by high ideals and worldly desires. No one could argue with expanding human knowledge, the achievement of an identity for Europe that would transcend national boundaries, or inspiration to ignite the imagination, as was seen by rocketing interest in science and space training after the 1960s Apollo landings. The more pragmatic considerations behind sending the ExoMars rover into the red dust focus on boosting competitiveness by giving industry innovative advantages, and finding ways to increase global security through international co-operation.

What are we looking for?

But what the Aurora scientists also want is evidence of life. ExoMars will be equipped with sensors to look for signs of life that may have existed and may still exist on Mars. Traces of methane, which is produced by life forms and dissipates fast, will do nicely to start with. And if the surface seems barren, ExoMars will be equipped with a 2-metre-long drill to delve below the planet’s crust. ExoMars will have its own laboratory, so scientists on Earth can run tests remotely on the samples without fear of contamination. We don’t want to introduce Earth-originated microbes to alien samples or to the planet itself.

Who will be going?

When all the automated tests have been run, and the training is complete, humans will be sent to Mars. The journey will take six months, compared to the three-day journey to the Moon, so pre-flight selection will be critical. Conflict resolution may be one of the principal skills required in astronauts willing to spend 26 weeks in the most cramped and isolated conditions ever experienced by humans. The women and/or men on the spacecraft will be psychologically and physically fit, able to endure a testing voyage in a hostile environment. They will need to grow their own food and drink recycled water, and be their own space maintenance crew as well as scientists and pilots.

What are we doing now?

A base in the Arctic is testing tissue and psychological responses to extreme conditions. The study and development of life support systems is well advanced, and the water recycling technology developed by ESA for this purpose is now being used in the new Airbus passenger liner. Microgravity conditions are showing differences in the physiological responses between male and female astronauts.

Importantly, as none of this could happen without information sharing and co-operation, ESA and other space agencies around the world are talking to each other. Contributing scientific knowledge and technological expertise to the world space effort and keeping Europe at the forefront of the global space race.

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