Disappointed astronomers battle on

Artist's impression of Athena In the suite of planned next-generation facilities, Athena is meant to cover the X-ray portion of the spectrum

The fightback has begun. As soon as it became known on Wednesday that a mission to Jupiter's icy moons was in pole position to become the next big European space venture, proponents of rival concepts were on the web campaigning to try to change the outcome.

The European Space Agency's executive has recommended to member states that Juice (JUpiter ICy moon Explorer) be declared the winner in the competition to find a billion-euro mission to launch in 2022. The news is a bitter blow to the teams behind other proposals.

It's not just the deflation of coming second. It's also the thought of all the work that went into the proposals (five years) and the prospect that none of the promised science will be realised.

But never say never.

Prof Paul Nandra is from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, with a visiting position at Imperial College London, UK.

He's a key mover behind Athena, the project to build the largest X-ray space telescope the world has ever seen - the absolute maximum size you could fit on the top of a mighty Ariane 5 rocket, something like 13m in length.

Athena would have the sensitivity and resolution to elucidate the extraordinary and extreme physics at the edge of a black hole like no other mission before it.

Prof Nandra heard officially on Tuesday that Juice had pipped his project for the recommendation.

On Wednesday, he set up a campaign site to get the world's astronomers to weigh in behind Athena in the hope - even at this late stage - of a different outcome to the competition.

He sent an email to a core list of Athena supporters at 15:30 CEST (14:30 BST) and in less than five hours he had 640 astronomers signed up, including more than 110 professors.

"It was obviously disappointing to hear the news, given how hard we'd worked and how strong a case we feel we made. We just felt we needed to do something about it, to keep on making that case. I recognise it's an uphill struggle but the final decision is not made until it's made, so to speak," says Prof Nandra.

But what chance really is there of a different outcome? Esa has a process. When it calls for mission ideas, it whittles down the many brilliant proposals it receives on the advice of specialist scientific panels.

The different disciplines review the best concepts in their areas of expertise, before pushing their thoughts up to a super panel (the Space Science Advisory Committee) to pick the most meritorious suggestion from across the board.

Esa's executive reviews the decision to check the chosen concept:

  • is technically feasibly
  • can be done in a reasonable timeframe
  • is financially affordable
  • and really does have the commitment of international partners if they're integral to the project.

If those conditions are met, it then passes its recommendation on to member states for the final say.

The decision-making body (the Science Programme Committee), due to meet on 2 May, is sovereign and can decide what it believes is best. It could go against the painstaking process that has taken five years to produce a result, but no-one I've spoken to really expects that to happen.

The setback for Athena is not just a setback for X-ray astronomy; it's a setback for the wider science.

The funding agencies plan a suite of next-generation facilities to examine the outstanding questions in astronomy across the electromagnetic spectrum, with most becoming operational in the 2020 timeframe:

X-rays will be the glaring omission.

"Athena would give us unique information about the Universe that you can't acquire any other way. While everyone is somewhat parochial in advocating their own wavelength range, the idea that you would be missing something entirely really resonates with the community. I think that's why we've got so many people signing up to support us from across astrophysics," says Prof Nandra.

If Juice is indeed selected as Europe's next big thing, it should launch in 2022. The great distance to the gas giant means it will not arrive at the Jovian System until 2030.

And here's the splendid irony. The Athena team will re-enter its proposal in the follow-on Esa competition which is expected to call for ideas next year. The winner would probably get a launch slot in 2028. So, even if Prof Nandra and colleagues cannot get the SPC to do an about-turn, there's still a possibility their dream will realise its science before we get pictures of those icy moons from Juice.

Jonathan Amos Article written by Jonathan Amos Jonathan Amos Science correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Why can`t they do all these things,dam humans don`t live long and i would like to see alot more done and thought by 2012 we would be on mars by now. I can`t understand how trillions are spent on bailing out the banks n wars but argue over advancing the human race.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    @Ben But *I* can't help wondering what we could achieve if we shut down all military programs and instead spent the trillions of dollars on cheaper medicine, environmental monitoring, cleaner energy systems and sustainable infrastructures instead. The world does not need another war when people die for want of a $10 antimalarial treatment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    From the conclusion of ESA's report, it's clear that ATHENA wasn't quite pipped at the post, but actually left with the wooden spoon!

    "The SSAC UNANIMOUSLY recognized the HIGH science value of NGO...."
    "The SSAC also recognized the science value of ATHENA..."

    In the unlikely event that ESA had change of heart, it seems clear that NGO would get the nod. Petition = sour grapes from Team ATHENA!

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Its a shame the telescope lost out as I expect it would have yielded more new knowledge than Juice but the Jupiter mission especially Europa will definitely capture more of the public interest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    @Ben The costliest to date of non-earth observation space programs, the James Webb, has a toll of 8.7 billions U$S and still rising. The nobel economist Stiglitz puts the cost of the American adventure in Iraq in 3 trillons U$S. Are you really serious putting the blame on astronomy programmes? Search the internet for technology spin offs of the James Webb and think again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I can't help wondering what we could achieve if we shut down all the non-earth observation space programs for a year and instead spent the billions upon billions of dollars on cheaper medicine, environmental monitoring, cleaner energy systems and sustainable infrastructures instead. The world does not need another interplanetary mission when people die for want of a $10 antimalarial treatment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    No mention of the LISA mission? It has the most to lose, a Pathfinder mission yet to launch with at least 20 years research into it, to then have its follow on not even confirmed.

    But the Juipter one is the more exciting of the other 2, visiting it and 3 of its most interesting Moons. Hopefully with the increased science budget towards the UKSA, the UK will play a bigger part in it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    You would've thought the astronomers would've been willing to give someone else a turn but no - everything's about them and their unverified and often unverifiable theories built on educated guesses built on undetectable dark matter and energy all held together with spit and chewing gum.

    I can see court battles ahead unless we have more rockets and hardware touching down on REAL rocks.


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