Europe on track for Mars space mission - ESA

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BERLIN, Nov 8 (Reuters) Plans for a European mission to send a robot to Mars are progressing well, the head of the European Space Agency (ESA) said today, with a new decision on financing expected next year.

The 'ExoMars' mission, scheduled for launch in 2013, hopes to parachute a wheeled robot onto the surface of the planet to search for signs of Martian life.

''We have recently received the industrial proposal for the full development of this new ExoMars mission,'' ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain told a news conference in Berlin.

He said a funding decision will take place at a meeting of ESA member states in November of next year - and hopefully give a detailed financial go-ahead for the mission.

''I am optimistic for two reasons. First of all because ExoMars is a fantastic mission and secondly because the participating states have authorised us to start detailed (planning) activities,'' Dordain said.

ESA members proposed a budget of 650 million euros (951.4 million dollars) for the mission in December 2005, but the total budget for the project is still being negotiated.

The spacecraft carrying the robot will take nearly two years to reach the red planet and is expected to be launched from a European space base on the northeast coast of South America.

The solar-powered robot, which will weigh around 200 kilos, will drill and collect rock samples for around six months. ESA hopes the ExoMars project will be the predecessor to a manned mission to Mars.

An ESA-backed British mission to land a robot on Mars ended in failure in 2005 when scientists lost contact with the Beagle 2 spacecraft after its launch into space.

Reuters NC DB2144

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