British robotics experts could cooperate with China to put the first man on Mars, the UK’s science minister David Willetts suggested.
Speaking shortly after joining Prime Minister David Cameron on a visit to China, Willetts said cash from a £80m Government fund for space co-operation could be used to support deals with Chinese companies aiming at the development and commercialisation of space activities.
"I discussed that with members of the Chinese government during the trip," said Mr Willetts. "We are now going to work on projects that we can work together on. That could include things like putting British science experiments on vehicles launched from China.
The ambitious idea of a manned mission to Mars, foreseen to take place in 25 to 30 years, is, according to Willetts, one of the ventures that could potentially benefit from UK expertise.
Teams from Astrium UK, based in Stevenage, are currently developing the future rover of the European Space Agency (ESA) to be launched to Mars in 2018. The ExoMars mission, a joint project of ESA and the Russian federation, will search for biosignatures in the Martian soil.
"In the old days it was Cape Canaveral. In the future it will be Stevenage - at the heart of the global space effort,” Willetts said.
"We are in a very good position. We have got a very nimble and effective space industry. We are trusted partners of America. We are active players in the European Space Agency and we are now opening up a new relationship with China.”
Despite acknowledging the challenges and difficulties of getting men to Mars, Willetts said he believed if all the world’s major space powers, such as the USA, Europe and China, got to work together, the mission could eventually be accomplished,
"There is no agreed plan for getting to Mars. We will first of all build our experience by getting more and more unmanned spacecraft to Mars with robotic systems. You then try and bring stuff back from Mars without a human going there. But in the future, I think there will be humans going to Mars. I suspect it will be a global endeavour."
China has recently launched its first probe to land on Moon, aiming to become the third nation in the history to soft-land a rover on lunar surface. The spacecraft has already reached lunar orbit and though the exact date of the attempted landing has not been revealed by Chinese authorities, ESA predicts it might happen on 14 December.
"They have just launched the first vehicle that will make a controlled landing on the moon since the Apollo programme. That will have a small robotic exploration device,” Willetts said.
"They are going to go first to the Moon. What they will subsequently do is land and retrieve robotic equipment. Then they will put a man - or I suspect a woman if they're being smart - on the Moon and then go on to Mars. It's a long-term plan and we are up for co-operation with them.”
According to Willetts, a permanent lunar base will eventually be established, serving as a launch pad for a manned trip to Mars.