ESA Embraces Astrobiology

29 May 2001 7:00 pm

Life in ESA. The Aurora program will build on existing or planned missions such as Mars Express, scheduled for launch in 2003.

FRASCATI, ITALY--The European Space Agency (ESA) has unveiled an ambitious agencywide strategy for the study of extraterrestrial life. The program, called Aurora, was announced here last week at the first meeting of the 120-scientist-strong European Exo/Astrobiology Network and will be presented to ESA's governing council this fall.

Aurora is envisioned as having two goals: searching for traces of extraterrestrial life, such as fossil microbes on Mars, and precursor molecules to life on Earth; and laying the groundwork for future human space exploration. "If we decide it is right in 20 years' time to send people to Mars or an asteroid, we must find out now what knowledge and supporting technology we would need," says Didier Schmitt, head of life sciences at ESA's Space Research and Technology Centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands.

According to ESA, the important targets for exo/astrobiology in our solar system are Mars, asteroids, Jupiter's moon Europa, and Earth's moon. In particular, the agency's science advisers are keen to see the agency begin a study on a mission to bring back samples from Mars. NASA is already planning such a mission with the French government, but ESA's science advisers believe such a mission is important enough for the agency to undertake a feasibility study of its own.

Since ESA first broached the idea last November, the agency has been moving with uncharacteristic speed to launch Aurora. It hopes to have a fleshed-out proposal to present to science ministers from member states this November. During a 3-year preparatory phase, ESA officials are looking to raise about $30 million for feasibility studies for a detailed exo/astrobiology program and to identify technologies needed to initiate programs. If Aurora becomes a fully fledged program, ESA will need up to $130 million a year to fund it.

ESA may have a hard time extracting that much money from member states, which are already tightfisted when it comes to ESA's regular budget. "There are many difficulties to resolve at the ministerial level," admits ESA's Schmitt, who told workshop participants that the agency is seeking the backing of the scientific community on Aurora--something that will be essential for making a strong case to the ministers this fall.

Related sites

ESA summary of the meeting in Frascati

The Astrobiology Web

NASA's Astrobiology Institute

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