EUROPEAN SPACE scientists strongly recommended a robotic Mars mission equipped with a rover and drilling capability at a meeting held at Aston University, Birmingham, last month.
The mission would analyse the Martian environment and search for traces of past and present life.
The recommendation was made at a European Space Agency (ESA) workshop where scientists from Europe, North America and Canada considered three candidate missions. BeagleNet is a twin rover system, ExoMars has a large rover with a relay orbiter, and its variant ExoMars-Lite would use an orbiter already at Mars.
Commitment by national governments will be made at an ESA council meeting in December.
The mission is likely to blend components of all three candidates and would be an initial phase of the umbrella Aurora project - the European programme for the exploration of the solar system.
Blasting off in 2011 from Kourou, French Guiana, a Russian-built Soyuz Fregat vehicle will carry the probe and arrive two years later. It will deliver at least one rover and drill system capable of penetrating 2m into the Red Planet's surface.
A NASA orbiting spacecraft will relay data between the lander and Earth as a suite of instruments characterises the shallow subsurface, water/ geochemical composition and vertical profile. This mapping is designed to identify surface and environmental hazards to future human missions.
The lander will measure seismic phenomena that could be caused by volcanoes, hydrothermal activity or Marsquakes, and carry a life marker experiment to analyse gases for signs of life.
The scientists also confirmed their commitment to an international mission to bring back a Martian geological sample in 2016.