What is Aurora?



Aurora is a long-term programme set up by the European Space Agency (ESA) for the exploration of the Moon and Mars, initially with robotic probes, leading the way for manned missions to both targets. The programme includes a Mars rover and Mars sample return missions, and development of the elements required for human exploration of both targets.

How is it different from the American proposals?

In January 2004, President George Bush announced "The Vision for Space Exploration", which called for the completion of the International Space station and the retirement of the Space Shuttle, to be followed by missions "to the Moon, Mars and beyond". Some of these plans have been altered; for example President Barack Obama cancelled the Constellation programme which would have developed launch vehicles derived from the Space Shuttle. However, development of the programme's Orion spacecraft continues, and new work has begun on the Space Launch System, which will provide a heavy launch capability similar to that of the Saturn V.

Partly due to changes in the programme, there is no specific definition of what types of missions will be included or how they will be achieved. In contrast, Aurora had a defined programme of missions, of which the first two have been successfully achieved.

  • In 2003 SMART-1 flew to the Moon using a new method - solar-electric propulsion, in which solar panels provide the energy to run an ion engine. This system can operate for years, allowing for high velocities to be built up. The engine had a specific impulse more than 3 times that the maximum for chemical rockets. Despite only using less than 60kg of its xenon fuel, this is not really a practical means of reaching a target as close as the Moon. However, the real purpose of SMART-1 was to demonstrate the technology. In 2006, the craft was deliberately crashed into the Moon, creating an impact that was visible with ground-based telescopes on Earth.
  • The other mission was Mars Express, which was launched to the Red Planet in 2003 and is still in orbit, continuing to send back data. Its radar system has detected huge amounts of water frozen beneath the surface of Mars.

There is another major difference which I shall discuss later.


The Aurora roadmap.

ESA drew up a roadmap of missions that would have led to human missions to Mars around 2033, though this has been amended.

One of the early missions, ExoMars, has undergone several major revisions which have resulted in the mission now set for a possible launch in 2018. The UK has carried out major development work on the ExoMars rover.

Click on the image for a larger version.


Further information

Information on the Aurora programme can be found on the ESA website, and information on the UK's involvement can be found on this page on the website of the UK Space Agency.