Last November European science ministers met to decide on ESA’s budget for the next five years. Space scientists had been hoping for a budget increase of around 5% a year in real terms, but had to make do with an annual rise of about 2.5%. In the light of this shortfall, ESA’s director of science David Southwood predicted that the agency would have to axe a major mission, such as the GAIA galaxy mapper or the Bepi-Colombo mission to Mercury. But ESA will now avoid this fate by arranging its missions into three ‘production groups’ – astrophysics, solar system science and fundamental physics – that Southwood says will enable missions to reuse hardware and share engineering teams,

Within the astrophysics group, the Integral gamma-ray observatory is scheduled to take off later this year, while the infrared and microwave Herschel mission, the Planck cosmic microwave background mission, and Eddington should be launched between 2007 and 2008. GAIA should be launched no later than 2012.

In solar science, the Rosetta comet mission, Mars Express and the SMART-1 technology demonstrator should all be launched in 2003, while BepiColombo and the Solar Orbiter are due to take off in 2011 or 2012.

In fundamental physics, a mission to test the equivalence principle called STEP is due for launch in 2005 (although this mission is still awaiting a decision by NASA), while SMART-2 takes off in 2006 and the LISA gravitational wave mission in 2011. In addition, ESA is a partner in NASA’s Next Generation Space Telescope, which should take off in 2010.

The new science programme will save about Euro 70m through the miniaturization and integration of space-craft subsystems. Southwood says that in addition he will exert a much tighter personal control over management of the agency. But he acknowledges that the programme will be less flexible and that Europe’s space industry will lose jobs.

“We’ve been incredibly lucky to patch things together,” says Southwood. “It’s not that you can’t make efficiency gains, but you can’t keep doing it over and over again. We couldn’t handle another set-back such as the Cluster failure.”