Europe is to reopen the space race by launching one of the fastest spacecraft so far for a landing on a melting comet. The mission is part of a series to demonstrate Europe’s growing challenge to US domination in space. One will look at the origins of the universe, another seek planets similar to earth. The most ambitious will land on Mars to seek the top prize – confirmation of alien life. One of the most dramatic will be the launch next January of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission to Comet Wirtanen. After its launch, Rosetta will orbit Earth twice and Mars once, using their gravitational pull to match the comet’s speed of up to 134,400k/mh. Once it has caught up with Wirtanen, it will drop a lander on the surface, then follow the comet towards the sun. Scientists hope Rosetta will provide some of the most exciting pictures since the US landed on the moon 33 years ago. The space race will accelerate four months later when ESA and NASA, the US space agency, send missions to Mars within a few days of one another. Three spacecraft – one European and two US – should arrive at Mars about Christmas 2003.