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 28.

    Judging by the ignorance of some of these comments I'm glad that it's not decided by public opinion! Both missions are worthwhile, it's just a shame they can't both be achieved. Perhaps sufficient funding could be found by not throwing $15bn at the IMF, it'll only end up in the pockets of the already wealthy!

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    i meant to say on my last post the resources are NOT infinite

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Well if we didn't waste so much money on that hoax called climate science we would have more to spend on real science!

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    i really cant undersdtand why governments are so short sighted on space exploration/expansion. as a species we consume and the resources on earth are infinite. unless there is a huge catastrophy we will deplete these and mass extinction will ensue as a species we need to take to the stars and planets of our system and the sooner the better for humans. Anyone remember what happened to the dinosaurs

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    I think JUICE was probably the right choice. It would have been great if we could stop spending money on wars and spend it on more science but that probably won't happen for a while. Our first priority should be to work towards exploring our solar system and putting permanent bases on other planets and moons. This makes humans more likely to survive a crisis on planet earth !

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    "Where in here is a provision for potential dangers to earth or space?"

    I wouldn't worry! There is no chance of us endangering earth or space by building a telescope to look at things. Space itself is extremely dangerous and hostile, and the earth already sits within it. The idea that we can build anything that can damage space is to be blunt, laughable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Something seems backward in the planning. Look at work that went into the proposals (5 yrs) & prospect that none of the promised science will be realised. Shouldn't these raw ideas have been vetted first so that all this committed time, by so many different scientists, could have been curtailed, & all would have been on board, not wasting more time & money still trying to win?

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Esa's executive reviews the decision to check chosen concept:
    is technically feasibly
    can be done in a reasonable timeframe
    is financially affordable &
    really does have the commitment of international partners if they're integral to the project.
    Where in here is a provision for potential dangers to earth or space?

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    @BluesBerry don't worry it only detects X-rays emitted by astronomical objects, it doesn't create any itself, just like a pair of binoculars detecting visible light

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I'm no scientist, but the thought of projecting X-ray, using X-Rays in outer space causes the flesh to creep on my bones. X-Ray technology is dangerous. Even scanners at airports have begun to look ominously dangerous. Personally, I am glad this X-Ray thing will not happen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Thanks as always, Jonathan, for an extremely interesting article. Of course, we should be embarking on *all* these great voyages of discovery. But we have the LSST, ALMA, the SKA and other fantastic astronomical projects to look forward to over the next decade or so - the LSST is worth an article.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    @boulderboy89; @ngc2403 Lisa/NGO is deserving of its own posting, especially given Pathfinder's interest to the UK. I hope to do that before we get to 2 May.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    It's shame this article came out looking so pessimistic and one sided. This decision was a victory for the scientists and engineers who spent a lot of time getting Europe ready for a leading position in outer planetary science.
    The x-rays aren't going anywhere, they can wait. Planetary science, especially of the icy moons is first come first served.
    Congrats to ESA!

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    It is disappointing that all three projects could not be funded.

    History has shown that, in the long term, investment in science is rarely wasted.

    New knowledge inspires new technology and even designing the tools used in the investigation tends to develop innovations useful elsewhere.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    NGC2403: I'm afraid you're wrong. NGO was recommended as best by the Physical Sciences Panel; Athena by the Astronomy Panel; and Juice by the Solar System Panel - Surprise surprise. But the higher-level (and more objective) panel - the Space Sci. Advisory Committee unambiguously recommended Juice. This journalist is extremely - but extremely - well informed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    I find these articles to be a grossly uninformed.
    Why is there no mention of the LISA/NGO mission here at all. It was unanimously decided by this ESA science panel that the LISA/NGO mission was the best science mission of the three and by some margin too. The panels main directive is to look at the science return and nothing more.

    Yet another victory for politics

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    > 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 ...

    You'd be very disappointed. The ENTIRE European Space Agency science all-mission budget for a year is substantially less than 1 billion Euro: Roughly 2 euro per EU citizen! You get a lot for that!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    @3 Nothing at all,seeing as most of the starvation we see is caused by corruption in the ones not doing the starving.

    But the science could help everyone. Who knows how, but that's how science works.And fact remains that unless we have some excellent science we'll one day be at a point where we all starve. These are investments in the future, and filling knowledge gaps could help everyone one day

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    The problem I have with Juice is that it will not answer the big question, is there life on one of those moon, it will only produce more evidence whether it yes or no but not answer the actual question. It would take until the 2040s - 50s to put any of its data to use. Just put a ice drill platform on all three moons with the equipment to answer the question once and for all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Chandra xray telescope will continue to provide excellent data for years. Clearly not everyone can be winners in a bidding process, the prospect of a new Jupiter mission that could provide clues to whether live exists elsewhere in the Solar System is fascinating. And to people to complain about the cost, do you know how much of your technology is derived from NASA spin offs from the last 40 years?


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