Aurora is part of Europe's strategy for space, endorsed by the European Union Council of Research and the ESA Council in 2001. This strategy calls for Europe to:
- explore the solar system and the Universe
- stimulate new technology
- inspire the young people of Europe to take a greater interest in science and technology
As a result of this challenge, in 2001 ESA set up the Aurora Programme. The primary objective of Aurora is to create, and then implement, a European long-term plan for the robotic and human exploration of the solar system, with Mars, the Moon and the asteroids as the most likely targets.
A second objective is to search for life beyond the Earth. Future missions under the programme will carry sophisticated exobiology payloads to investigate the possibility of life forms existing on other worlds within the solar system.
It is clear from these objectives that the interdependence of exploration and technology is the basis of the Aurora Programme. On the one hand the desire to explore provides the stimulus to develop new technology while on the other, it is the introduction of innovative technology that will make exploration possible.
Curiosity about our world, and the Universe that surrounds us, has been the driving force behind human progress since prehistoric times. Today, the exploration of space remains one of the most stimulating and exciting areas of scientific research.
Many exciting and innovative ideas for future exploration have been proposed by industry and academia since the Aurora Programme began. In 2001 ESA received more than 300 replies when it asked the space community to put forward suggestions for future exploratory missions. This was followed in 2002 by another 'call for ideas' for the technology needed to make these missions possible. All proposals were accompanied by a preliminary time schedule and an assessment of feasibility and cost.
Suggestions received included an investigation of Pluto, the smallest and outermost planet in the solar system; establishing a launch site on the Moon; and the human exploration of Mars.
The Aurora Programme carefully assesses the feasibility - both technical and financial - of all the ideas received. European industry is then encouraged to develop the technology needed to bring these ideas to fruition.
Each phase of exploration on the way to the human exploration of Mars will require increasingly complex technology. In some cases existing technology can be further developed or adapted, but in many cases European industry will be asked to come up with new innovative technology to make future exploration missions possible.
The technological studies to be carried out under the Aurora Programme will enable Europe to select which of the many technologies on offer should be given priority for development within Europe, as well as the value of the technologies offered by possible partners. Among the technology needed to make a human mission to Mars possible are: aerobraking, precision navigation and landing, propulsion systems that offer cheaper, faster travel; and life-support systems to enable humans to live in hostile space environments.
Close cooperation within ESA, as well as collaboration with European and Canadian industry and academia, is a key aspect of Aurora.
Although Aurora is an ESA programme and will promote European industry, many missions will involve international cooperation. For instance Canada, which has a cooperation agreement with ESA, is already participating in the Aurora Progamme.
International cooperation is important because it reduces costs and allows the countries involved to gain from one another's expertise. The Aurora programme will ensure that ESA achieves the maximum benefits from joint enterprises with international partners.
Aurora's step-by-step approach means that missions will increase in complexity over time, culminating - if all goes well - in a human expedition to Mars by the year 2030. Steps on the way to Mars will probably include exploration of the Moon as well as:
- remote sensing of the Martian environment
- robotic exploration and surface analysis
- Mars sample return missions
- a robotic outpost
Not all these steps towards the ultimate goal of sending humans to Mars will necessarily be part of the Aurora Programme. As the result of international cooperation, various collaborating agencies will make a contribution to those missions that best meet their particular requirements and areas of expertise.
Exploration Programme Advisory Committee
All ideas received are examined to assess their feasibility and to ensure that they are in line with Europe’s space strategy. They are then sent to Aurora’s Exploration Programme Advisory Committee (EPAC) for further discussion. This body includes European experts from technology and science as well as an ESA astronaut.
Aurora Board of Participants
The Aurora Board of Participants (ABP) has the final decision on the choice of missions and technology. This Board is made up of representatives of all the ESA Member States that have joined the Aurora Programme, as well as Canada. At present it has 10 members.
Once an exploration mission and the associated technology have been approved, European and Canadian industry will be invited to tender for the work needed to bring the project to fruition. The Aurora Programme office will carefully follow each project at all stages to ensure that everything is proceeding to plan.
The ultimate challenge
ESA's Aurora Programme is one of the most exciting enterprises ever undertaken in Europe, an endeavour that will involve the best of European minds and industry.
Last update: 9 January 2006