Ups and downs for big projects
Nov 11, 2003
The European Space Agency has been forced to cancel a mission for the first time because of a lack of funds. It has also made serious cut-backs to another project. In contrast, the US Department of Energy has just published a strategic plan outlining its priorities for the next 20 years. Many of the 28 projects in the plan are physics-based.
The European Space Agency (ESA) has decided to abandon Eddington – a mission to search for Earth-like planets outside the solar system – and to cancel the lander that was originally part of the BepiColombo mission to Mercury. The only new mission to be approved for the agency’s “Cosmic Vision” plan is a pathfinder mission that will be a forerunner to the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) – the world’s first space-based gravitational wave observatory. The pathfinder mission is due to be launched in 2008.
ESA’s current financial problems were caused, in part, by the grounding of the Ariane-5 rocket in January this year and the subsequent delays in the launches of Rosetta and Smart-1. The space agency has been given a temporary loan of €100 million but this must be paid back by the end of 2006. ESA admits that these decisions are “hard to take scientifically” and that they “reflect financial conditions rather than the ambitions of the scientific community”.
The decisions were taken by ESA’s Science Programme Committee and a last-minute campaign by more than 400 space scientists across Europe to save Eddington failed. Ian Roxburgh of Queen Mary University London, co-ordinating scientist for the mission, hopes that there is still time to change the agency’s mind. “We hope to persuade the ESA Council to provide the additional funds to permit Eddington to be flown” he told PhysicsWeb. The Council meets on December 4.
ESA announced the changes to Cosmic Vision at the end of last week – a few days before the European Commission presented a “Space Action Plan” calling for substantial additional spending in this sector. “If we do not act now Europe runs the risk of decline as a space power,” said EU research boss Philippe Busquin. “The action plan will help us move ahead and put Europe's scientific talents, technologies and entrepreneurial skills to work for Europe and its citizens.”
Meanwhile, the Department of Energy in the US has whittled down a list of 53 proposed new research facilities and upgrades to a prioritized list of 28. The highest priority in the near-term is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) – a collaboration between the US, EU, Japan, Russia, China and Korea to build a next-generation fusion reactor. A project to increase computing power available to DOE researchers by a factor of 100 is second highest priority. Three physics projects – a space-based probe to study dark energy, the most powerful X-ray source in the world and an accelerator for rare isotopes – tie for third priority, along with a facility to mass-produce and characterize proteins.
The highest priority for the medium term is the linear collider – the machine that particle physicists want to build to follow on from the Large Hadron Collider. Two projects share top priority in the far-term: an upgrade to the National Synchrotron Light Source and a Super Neutrino Beam, which would outperform current neutrino beams by a factor of 10.
Inclusion in the plan does not guarantee that facilities will be built. However, the head of the DOE, Spencer Abraham, was enthusiastic. “These facilities will revolutionize science – and society,” he said. “Our goal is to keep the United States at the scientific forefront.”