Aurora programme

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For the rumored American spy plane, see Aurora (aircraft). For other uses, see Aurora (disambiguation).

The Aurora programme is a human spaceflight programme of the European Space Agency (ESA) established in 2001 with the primary objectives of creating, and then implementing, a European long-term plan for exploration of the Solar System using robotic spacecraft and human spaceflight. A secondary objective is to search for life beyond the Earth.[1]

Member states commit to participation in the Aurora programme for five-year periods (the first is 2005-2009), after which they can change their level of participation or pull out entirely.

In the early years the Aurora Programme planned for flagship missions such as ExoMars and NEXT.,[2] and arrow missions for key technology demonstrations, such as Earth re-entry vehicle/capsule and Mars aerocapture demonstrator.

In recent years ESA has increasingly used the name Aurora Exploration Programme, or simply Exploration Programme. Although human spaceflight has remained a long-term goal of the programme, with some basic technology development in this area, the thrust has been on implementation of the ExoMars mission and preparations for an international Mars Sample Return Mission. Due to funding shortages on both sides of the Atlantic, these plans for robotic exploration of Mars are currently (2011) increasingly made in cooperation with NASA.

At a meeting is not in Plymouth on 29–30 June 2009, ESA and NASA created a Mars Exploration Joint Initiative (MEJI) with the aim of planning collaborative Mars missions for 2016, 2018 and 2020, and leading to the return of samples from Mars in the 2020s.[3] The previous main effort of the Aurora Programme, the ExoMars mission, is not explicitly part of the MEJI collaboration and unlikely to be implemented as originally foreseen, but major parts of its science instruments are likely to be embedded in the MEJI collaboration. However, the Italian Space Agency (ASI), a major financer of the Aurora programme, has voiced scepticism regarding the proposed MEJI collaboration, in particular its lack of independent European demonstration of key capabilities for future planetary exploration.[4]

The Aurora programme has currently two planned missions named ExoMars, in collaboration with the Russian Federal Space Agency. These are planned for launch in 2016 and 2018.


ExoMars model.

The first decade is planned to focus on robotic missions.

Flagship missions[edit]

ESA describes some Aurora programme missions as "Flagship" missions. The first Flagship mission is ExoMars, a robotic mission to Mars. It will involve development of a Mars orbiter, a descent module and a Mars rover.[5]

Flagship missions planned as part of Aurora include (as of September 30, 2005):

  • ExoMars, consisting of an unmanned orbiter and rover, launching in 2016
  • a robotic Mars Sample Return Mission, to be conducted jointly with NASA, delayed until at least 2016
  • a human space mission to be placed in 2033

Arrow missions[edit]

Arrow missions are technology demonstrator missions focused on developing a certain technology needed for the Flagship missions. Approved Arrow missions so far (as of January 30, 2003):

  • Earth re-entry vehicle/capsule, a step in the preparations for the Mars Sample Return mission.
  • Mars aerocapture demonstrator, to further develop the technologies for using a planet's atmosphere to brake into orbit. This particular mission seems to have been revised into an expanded mission to demonstrate "aerobraking/aerocapture, solar electric propulsion and soft landing" to be launched in 2018.[6]

Call for ideas on NEXT mission[edit]

On 9 March 2007, ESA invited proposals for its Next Exploration Science and Technology (NEXT) mission, which might launch in 2015-2018. NEXT would demonstrate key enabling capabilities, such as descent and precision landing, needed for a future Mars sample return mission.[2]


The proposed Aurora roadmap[7] (as of September 30, 2005. This roadmap can, and most likely will, go through revisions):

  • 2014 – Human mission technologies demonstrator(s) to validate technologies for orbital assembly and docking, life support and human habitation
  • 2016 – Mars Sample Return mission with NASA
  • 2018 – A technology demonstrator for aerobraking/aerocapture, solar electric propulsion and soft landing (formerly envisaged as a smaller Arrow-class mission to be launched in 2010)
  • 2018 – ExoMars, a Mars rover. The scientific objectives include exobiological studies as well as study of the surface of Mars.
  • 2024 – Human mission to the Moon
  • 2026 – Automatic mission to Mars
  • 2030/2033 – First human mission to Mars, as a split mission. The proposed Ariane M rocket may be used for this landing.

Only ExoMars has been formally approved during the December 2005 Ministerial conference, which will postpone to a later date or cancel altogether the Earth re-entry vehicle/capsule, which was proposed for 2007.

The human part of the programme has been challenged by the main ESA contributors (France, Germany and Italy), making it quite possible that the whole Aurora Programme will be refocused on robotic-only exploration of Mars.

  • 2013 – ExoMars, a Mars rover. The scientific objectives include exobiological studies as well as study of the surface of Mars.
  • 2016? – Mars Sample Return mission with NASA
  • 2018? – A technology demonstrator for aerobraking/aerocapture, solar electric propulsion and soft landing (formerly envisaged as a smaller Arrow-class mission to be launched in 2010)
  • 2026? – Automatic mission to Mars

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Aurora's origins". ESA. 
  2. ^ a b "NEXT exploration mission - call for ideas". ESA. 
  3. ^ Space News, ISSN 1046-6940, Volume 20, Issue 28, 2009 July 13, page 4
  4. ^ Space News, ISSN 1046-6940, Volume 20, Issue 30, 2009 July 27, page 6
  5. ^ "ExoMars". ESA. 
  6. ^ Compare [1] and [2]
  7. ^ "Aurora’s roadmap to Mars / Exploration / Human Spaceflight / Our Activities / ESA". European Space Agency. 2003-12-19. Retrieved 2013-04-09. 

External links[edit]