The Aurora, Robotic Mission

Exploring the Moon, Mars and beyond

  • In development
  • First launch (ExoMars) planned for 2013
  • UK taking a major role

Aurora includes robotic missions to explore the Moon and Mars and lays the foundation for possible human exploration of the Solar System. The UK is the second largest financial contributor to this ambitious European Space Agency (ESA) programme.

Aurora was started in 2001 and is a key part of the strategy to take Europe’s space exploration to the next level. One of the ultimate long-term goals of Aurora is to find places elsewhere in the Solar System where humans could one day live and work.

There are a number of projects already underway in the Aurora programme. At the top of the list is ExoMars, a European mission to land a rover on Mars in 2015. The 205 kg rover will be packed with instruments, including a drill to burrow into the rocky Martian surface. An experimental rover is currently under development. This is being led by a team at Astrium Limited in Stevenage.

In addition to Aurora, the UK is also an active member of the Global Exploration Strategy Team. This is a group of 14 space agencies which has set out a long-term vision for co-operation in space exploration. The short-term focus is likely to be on robotic lunar exploration. While much of the effort is focused through ESA, an agreement has been signed between BNSC and NASA. A joint UK-NASA team is examining the possibilities of developing a joint robotic lunar lander programme.

Find out more on ESA’s Aurora web pages or on STFC's web pages.

Mission facts

  • Aurora consists of several different missions. The UK, through the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), has committed €108.1 million to the next stage of Aurora.

  • The first mission, ExoMars, is due for launch in 2013.

  • ExoMars will be followed by other robotic missions to the Moon and Mars, including a mission to bring back samples of lunar or Martian soil to Earth.

  • If all goes to plan, an international mission to send humans to Mars will be launched by 2030. Sending humans to Mars would be the most ambitious project ever in the history of space exploration.

  • During its furthest orbit, the distance between Earth and Mars is more than a thousand times the distance of the Earth and Moon.

  • Astronauts may need to live on Mars for up to a year and a half before they can return home.


Much of the technology for the Aurora mission has yet to be invented! However, work on ExoMars is well advanced and other missions, instruments and technologies are under development.

Following successful tests on the ExoMars rover’s motor and chassis, efforts are now going into giving the rover a degree of ‘intelligence’. This will allow the rover to make its own way across the Martian surface rather than wait the 10-15 minutes for commands to reach it from Earth.

Trials are currently being conducted at the University of Aberystwyth where a half-sized model of the rover is being tested on soil and ground conditions similar to those on Mars.

STFC in conjunction with Surrey Satellite Technology Limited has completed a feasibility study into two robotic missions – MoonLITE and MoonRaker.

MoonLITE is designed to be launched in 2012 and comprises a small orbiter – providing a communications link between the Moon and Earth – and four ‘penetrators’ which would impact the Moon at high speed. MoonRaker consists of a single robotic lander.

UK involvement

The UK is taking a major role in developing the Aurora programme and is the second largest contributor to the ExoMars mission.

ESA has given the contract for designing the ExoMars rover to Astrium Limited and several UK teams are developing instruments for the mission.

STFC has also awarded the first of its annual ‘Aurora Fellowships’ to three young scientists who will be at the heart of the UK’s future work in space exploration.

The progress of ExoMars is complemented by the Aurora Core Programme. This involves the preparation of technologies needed for future exploration missions for both the Moon and Mars. The UK has subscribed about £70 million to ExoMars over eight years and £5 million over three years for the Aurora Core Programme.

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