Adelaide - Setting up a permanent village on the moon is the first step towards exploring Mars, the European Space Agency said on Thursday as plans to reach and colonise the Red Planet gathered pace.At an annual gathering of 4 000 global space experts in Adelaide, the ESA said the Moon was the "right place to be" as humans expand economic activities beyond low-Earth orbit, even while Mars remained the "ultimate destination"."We have been living in low-Earth orbit for the last 17 years on board a space station and we are on our journey to Mars for the first human mission," ESA's Piero Messina told AFP at the congress."In between, we believe that there is an opportunity to create a permanent... sustainable presence on the surface of the Moon."Reaching and colonising Mars has been viewed by private and public interests as the next stage in exploring the final frontier, and has been a key part of this year's International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide.RobotMessina said the more immediate goal was to have a permanent presence on the Moon, even if it was just a robot, by the end of the next decade."There are a series of missions planned to the moon over the next 10 years, and all these missions will create a movement, a momentum, and will create a wealth of data that will enable building the village," he added."I think it's the right time now to start discussing, start planning for something which is as inspiring as the space station but on a truly global, international-cooperation basis."The space agency has been touting the permanent lunar colony as a replacement for the orbiting International Space Station, which is due to be decommissioned in 2024.Also on the cards is a NASA-led project to build the first lunar space station as part of a programme called the Deep Space Gateway.The Russian space agency Roscosmos and NASA on Wednesday signed a co-operation agreement to work on the station, building the systems needed to organise scientific missions in lunar orbit and to the surface of the Moon.