The Aurora Programme, set up by the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2001, envisages a flotilla of robotic probes to pave the way towards the ultimate goal of landing humans on Mars in the 2030s.
Full details of the proposals are expected to be published in May.
"Aurora is not science-driven in the same way as the mandatory science programme of the ESA," said Dr Jean-Claude Worms of ESF.
"It is a technology-driven programme although it does of course have an important science component."
The first Aurora mission will be ExoMars, a robotic spacecraft scheduled to depart in 2013 to land on the red planet. It will release a rover carrying a laboratory able to analyse rock and soil samples for signs of life.
Europe was then expecting to play a major part in a US-led mission to send a probe to pick up and return a sample of Martian soil.
This is regarded as an essential forerunner to a later human expedition. Nasa has now put the project on hold and it is uncertain when, if ever, it will fly, ESF reported.
In light of this US decision, ESF is considering whether to go ahead with its own sample-return mission.
It would be an ambitious undertaking, with five spacecraft modules and several new procedures such as precision landing, take-off from Mars, orbital rendezvous and a return to Earth.
"Of course, the US and maybe other stakeholders such as Japan, China or India could participate," said Dr Worms.
"But the current discussion in the community is whether a sample-return mission could be a European-led effort."
ESF is an association of 75 member organisations devoted to scientific research in 30 European countries.
European scientists to land a man on Mars
By Robert Jaques on Apr 10, 2007 11:30AM