7 November 2003
At its 105th meeting, on 5/6 November, ESA's Science Programme Committee (SPC) made important decisions concerning the Cosmic Vision programme. Due to the current financial exigencies and an outlook with no budget increase or other relief, the SPC was forced to cancel the Eddington mission and rescope the BepiColombo mission.
Eddington had two aims, both remarkable and very pertinent to front-line astronomical interests. The first was to look for Earth-like planets outside our solar system - one of the key goals in the search to understand how life came to be, how it is that we live where we do in the universe and whether there are other potential life-supporting environments 'out there'. At the same time it was going to follow the path that the ESA-NASA mission SOHO had taken with the Sun of using astroseismology to look 'inside' stars. In the longer term, the loss of this one mission will not stop ESA and the scientific community pursuing the grand quests to which it would have contributed.
The loss of the BepiColombo lander is also hard to take scientifically. ESA, in conjunction with the Japanese space agency, JAXA, will still put two orbiters around Mercury but the ‘ground truth’ provided by the lander is a big loss. However, to land on a planet so near the Sun is no small matter and was a bridge too far in present circumstances, and this chance for Europe to be first has probably been lost.
The origins of the problems were recognised at the ESA Council meeting held in June. Several sudden demands on finance occurred in the spring, the most obvious and public being the unforeseen Ariane 5 grounding in January, delaying the launches of Rosetta and Smart-1. A temporary loan of EUR 100 million was granted, but must be paid back out of present resources by the end of 2006.
ESA's SPC was therefore caught in a vice. Immediate mission starts had to be severely limited and the overall envelope of the programme contained.
With this week’s decisions, the SPC has brought the scope of the Cosmic Vision programme down to a level that necessarily reflects the financial conditions rather than the ambitions of the scientific community. A long and painful discussion during the SPC meeting resulted in the conclusion that only one new mission can be started at this time, namely LISA Pathfinder, the technical precursor to the world’s first gravitational wave astronomical observatory, LISA. The LISA mission itself (to be carried out in cooperation with the United States) is scheduled for launch in 2012. ESA's Cosmic Vision, set to last until 2012, is a living programme. It has to adapt constantly to the available funding as well as respond to the expectations of the scientific community, and to technological developments. Within these boundaries, the decisions made by the SPC try to maximise the outcome of Cosmic Vision across disciplines, keeping it challenging and at the same time affordable. Nonetheless, there are many European scientists with ambitions that exceed the programme’s ability to respond.
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