The Aurora programme (sometimes called Aurora Exploration Programme, or simply Exploration Programme) is a human spaceflight programme of the European Space Agency (ESA) established in 2001. The objective is to formulate and then to implement a European long-term plan for exploration of the Solar System using robotic spacecraft and human spaceflight to investigate bodies holding promise for traces of life beyond the Earth.
Member states commit to participation in the Aurora programme for five-year periods, after which they can change their level of participation or pull out entirely. In the early years the Aurora programme planned for flagship missions and arrow missions for key technology demonstrations, such as Earth re-entry vehicle/capsule and Mars aerocapture demonstrator. 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.
The objective of the Aurora Programme is first to formulate and then to implement a European long-term plan for the robotic and human exploration of solar system bodies holding promise for traces of life.
The Aurora programme was a response to Europe's Strategy for space which was endorsed by European Union Council of Research and the ESA Council. Europe strategy for space had three main points including:"explore the solar system and the Universe", "stimulate new technology", and "inspire the young people of Europe to take a greater interest in science and technology". One of the foundational principles of the Aurora program is recognising the interdependence of technology and exploration;.
The first decade is planned to focus on robotic missions.
ESA describes some Aurora programme missions as "Flagship" missions. The first Flagship mission is ExoMars, a dual robotic mission to Mars made in cooperation with the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roskosmos). It will involve development of a Mars orbiter (ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter), a technology demonstrator descent module (Schiaparelli lander) and the ExoMars rover.
Flagship missions considered for the Aurora programme include:
- ExoMars, consisting of an unmanned Mars orbiter and lander launched jointly with the Russian Federal Space Agency in 2016 on Proton rocket with Fregat upper stage.
- ExoMars rover launch to be conducted jointly the Russian Federal Space Agency in 2020
- a robotic Mars Sample Return Mission by the mid-2020s
- a human space mission to be launched in the mid-2030s
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 2020.
- 2014 – Human mission technologies demonstrator(s) to validate technologies for orbital assembly and docking, life support and human habitation
- 2016 and 2020 – ExoMars rover to Mars. 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
- 2030s – First human mission to Mars, as a split mission. The proposed Ariane M rocket may be used for this landing.
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.
- "The European Space Exploration Programme Aurora". ESA.
- "Assessing Aurora". Astrobiology Magazine. April 7, 2007. Retrieved 2015-04-04.
- "ExoMars". ESA.
- "Aurora's roadmap to Mars / Exploration / Human Spaceflight / Our Activities / ESA". European Space Agency. 2003-12-19. Retrieved 2013-04-09.
- "Case study ExoMars". UK Government Space Agency. 3 July 2014. Retrieved 17 June 2015.
- Aurora site at ESA
- Aurora Industry Day 2006
- Brochure of the Aurora Programme
- Another publication about Aurora
- Aurora Roadmap poster