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Europe must stand tall on space science

Jonathan Amos | 14:55 UK time, Thursday, 7 April 2011

We’re a little bit clearer now in Europe on what the really big space science mission will be at the end of this decade… just a little bit.

For the past four years, scientists and engineers have been developing three concepts that would cost European participating nations about a billion euros. 

IXO artist's impression

IXO will no longer be the giant first envisaged, but still a major leap forward on current capability

To recap, they are: (1) a 20m-long X-ray telescope called IXO that could see the very "edge" of a black hole; (2) a trio of satellites, collectively known as LISA, which might be able to detect the ripples in space-time left by the moment of creation itself; and (3) a spacecraft that would visit the Jupiter system and go into orbit around the moon Ganymede. This one is called EJSM/Laplace.

We were expecting the European Space Agency to give us a good indication this year of which mission might be the favoured one, with the launch pencilled in for 2020 or very soon after.

But as of today, the concepts as we know them – as they were presented to the scientific community in a big showpiece event in Paris in February – are now dead. 

Four years’ work and they’ve hit a big buffer. They cannot be done as originally envisaged.

The reason is the Americans. In recent months, we’ve seen two highly influential reports come out of the States which have attempted to summarise and prioritise current US thinking on space science. 

These reports – they’re called Decadal Surveys, for the obvious reason that they’re done once a decade – have put a mighty spanner in the European works. 

Europe had hoped to progress with one of its Big Three as a partnership with America. 

But the Decadal Surveys do not consider any of these concepts to align with the top-most US priorities in planetary science and astrophysics; and it’s quite clear from the budget situation facing the American space agency right now that there simply isn’t the money on the other side of the Atlantic to participate in them anyway – not at the level that was originally envisaged. Projects like the much-delayed James Webb Space Telescope have consumed huge funds. 

So what is going to happen? 

The IXO, LISA and Laplace teams have been told to go away and think how they could complete their missions as largely European-only ventures. They have just under a year to do this.    

When they come back, their concepts will be smaller and they’ll probably have new names, too. 

De-scoping the concepts and making them work for a billion euros may be easier said than done.  

For Laplace, it looks more straightforward. In technology terms, we already know very well how to send a planetary probe to the outer planets. But Laplace was sold on the basis that it would deliver complementary science to an American orbiter at another Jupiter moon, Europa. If its “cousin” isn’t going…?

For a mission like LISA, a de-scoping is going to involve some head-scratching. 

It planned to fly three satellites five million km apart in an equilateral triangle formation. Laser beams travelling between the spacecraft would measure their separation very precisely.

The idea was that gravitational waves generated by exploding stars and merging black holes would wash over these beams and disturb them in a very characteristic way. 

It’s a new kind of astronomy that would allow you to study far-off phenomena without looking through a telescope. 

With perhaps just a billion euros to play with, the original architecture may not be achievable.  One idea is to still fly three satellites, but use only two laser “arms” to detect gravitational waves. 

Professor Bernie Schutz from the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics, in Potsdam, told me:

"Within the European LISA community, we're kicking around lots of options. In fact, there are so many ideas I think it's pretty clear we will come up with some kind of design. We are asking ourselves key questions: what science can we keep, what will we lose, and are there some new things we could do? I say that because if we shorten the arms, for example, the frequency range changes, and that might open up new possibilities, new observational targets. We're quite certain we can come up with a design that will still make a persuasive scientific case. But it's really too early to say anything for certain."

With a descoped architecture necessarily comes a reduction in sensitivity and capability.  Does LISA remain as compelling a venture as it once did?

This is the question that will face all three of the down-sized concepts when they are presented anew in 2012.

Professor Andy Fabian from Cambridge University, UK, is working on the IXO concept.  He won’t now get the super-scope first envisaged but says the revised X-ray observatory will still be a marvel.  He told me:

”We think we can come up with a mission which is a very significant advance on what we’ve got already. It’s like the next generation of optical telescopes. Initially the European Southern Observatory’s next Extremely Large Telescope was going to be a 100m telescope, and then they went to 42m and now it may be just 30m.  We’ll be doing the same.  We’ll be smaller but we’ll still be bigger than anything that has gone before.  There are now lighter ways to make the mirror; there are higher spectral resolution spectrometers we can use, and also we will try to make this thing more restricted in its instrumentation. The original IXO concept had quite a range of instruments; we’ll probably now only have one or two. We’ll lose some possibilities, but in terms of the core observations – making spectra and images – I think we are going to have an enormous boost compared to what we can do at the moment. I’m quite bullish.”

You can look at the positives to come out of this. It is an opportunity for Europe to stand tall and take a clear lead in certain areas of space science.

What Europe will hope, however, is that at least one of the trio will appear so attractive to the Americans that they will still want to come onboard.

This is not going to be at the levels previously considered, but it could reach $100m or more. Any additional money will mean more capability. There will of course be many US scientists who are deeply disappointed that America can no longer participate in these missions as they had planned; and, as I understand it, efforts are being made to keep them involved for the time being as "observers".

The big cosmic elephant in this room is what Europe and the US decide to do at Mars, but I’ll leave that for my next posting.

LISA Concept

Running lasers along three arms of the triangle may no longer be possible



  • Comment number 1.

    With NASA turmoil and clearly unable to plan beyond the next presidential election, after all it seem every president likes to come in and shake things up at NASA may be it time for us Europeans to look for more reliable partners, why do not we ask the Chinese, Indians and Japanese if they want to contribute to these missions.

  • Comment number 2.

    Depressing that the budgets for our largest space experiments (it being the next frontier beside the deep-sea trenches) are a pathetic drop in the ocean compared to the money we're happy to throw at bailing out the greedy ungrateful banks... £1billion for the WHOLE EU is ridiculously small change compared to the money the UK alone has just agreed to 'lend' (yea right) Portugal. And that can be blamed on bailing out various banks of one kind or another.

  • Comment number 3.

    Simple: Dumps the Yanks because how many times will ESA have to be disappointed over how many decades before it realises that they cant be trusted to deliver on anything more than day after yesterday.
    The obvious choice is to knock on the door of the Chinese... With Chinese funding and lower cost production of craft/launchers etc, the Jupiter project LaPlace - which let's face it, is the MOST interesting to the general public of the three currently being considered could Not only be a orbiter but a few landers on both water bearing moons with submersible's to explore under the ice layers. And it could all be ready to launch with the Chinese within 2 to 3 years but if we wait for the Yanks you yank us around it would be 20 to 30 years before even a basic orbiter could be launched. The next voyage to Jupiter and Saturn should include the subsurface landers/submersibles or it is a waste of a launch...

  • Comment number 4.

    I think I'm with the majority here. The American space effort, after a great start in the 1960's and 70's, has become a top-heavy under-achieving mess. Any plan made with the Americans is only good until the next presidential election or round of pork-barrel politics.

    On the other hand going in with China could, in my opinion, be a mistake. The Chinese attitude to space seems (from my limited reading of it) to be entirely military in orientation, focused on knocking out US satellites and enabling targeting of carrier battle-groups when their conflict inevitably moves from the current economic economic to a military one.

    Europe's great strength in space is that although it receives a healthy dose of government funding and guidance, private enterprise rather than the state has a far greater role than the US or Chinese space programmes. What is missing (although more cash is always nice, of course) is engagement with the wider population. So whatever Europe does next in space, I believe it should do it alone, and it should be less pure science in orientation and more calculated to inspire the public, which will help deliver the funding for pure science at a later stage.

  • Comment number 5.

    Afraid have to throw some cold water over Europe going it alone in Space Exploration. At least in the outer system.

    The Chinese do not a very long track record of Interplanetary exploration. Neither do they currently or in the near future have the means to get there.

    The Russians have not launch any Interplanetary probes since the fall of the Soviets. They are out of practice.

    The only one with rockets capable of reaching the outer system with a heavy payload and decent delta V is the US. They have the high energy Centaur upper stage. Plus the deep space tracking network to link with distant probes.

    Think there is going to be a slow down of space missions until the global economy is more robust and the missions are make less expensive to mounted. There can not be any more JWST type of gloated budget overrun and miss deadlines measure in years.

  • Comment number 6.

    Why do brilliant scientists find it hard to raise money? It's the same problem as the arts: government funding drives away benefactors and causes resentment amongst taxpayers. Time to find a different funding model. A few hundred wealthy benefactors could easily cover the cost of one of these missions.

    I am very interested in space exploration and cosmology but it would be hypocritical to say that they should be funded by the taxpayer but the arts shouldn't. Other people may have different priorities but they are not stupid. It's our money: let us decide how to spend it. I would happily donate to a mission I felt worthwhile but I resent every penny spent without my approval. There is no pubic consultation, no democracy, therefore no sympathy if they all get axed.

  • Comment number 7.

    I do not see sense in jeapordising the current missions because if their capability is shortened then that will result in a higher long term expendature. We would have to send another project to space to fill the gaps left by the new, cheaper, smaller projects. That will mean the price paid for the same original vision will skyrocket.

    So, scrap all three missions and put all that money into Skylon. With cheaper means of getting satalites in space the long term benefits could be huge.

    But then again, I am biased towards Skylon.

  • Comment number 8.

    I don't know much about Skylon but I agree with The Realist that the money should be spent on reducing the cost of getting things into space. There is a clear public interest there which justifies some taxpayer support.

    The current situation is quite farcical. ESA have a billion to spend but haven't decided which project to support. Clearly they think it is OK to scrap two of them. Why not all three?

  • Comment number 9.

    Why can't we just have 1 international organisation that co-ordinates a collective human strategy towards space technology?

  • Comment number 10.

    Unfortunately for all those suggesting China (for what reason I'm not sure) the Chinese simply don't have the deep space experience and equipment. It's true that China has some good thinkers but so far only the West and Russia could do it. Also depending on what's finally decided there could be security issues.

  • Comment number 11.

    Why does China come up? China has financial bottomless pockets and if presented with an idea, no matter how big or grand or large, it actually gets built in a fraction of the time the west would take to do the same. If the Chinese do not have the right technical person, this is a global market and all they have to do is advertise the position and pay the wage and space scientists will flock there... :)

  • Comment number 12.

    In reference to Michael: China definitely doesn't have 'bottomless pockets' any more than the U.S does. China's economy might be large, but then again so is the combined economy of the E.U.
    Secondly since China doesn't have the long experience the West and Russia do it would take a very long time for them to get to design and manufacture (it's telling that China still gets its most advanced weapons and systems from Russia). You can't just throw money at a question and expect it to get solved.
    Lastly scientists don't simply move from nation to nation. There are reasons why excellent researchers from all over the world prefer to go to America and Europe to work. The pay is higher in the West, better resources, less chance of political interference and far greater access to advanced facilities. That might be starting to change in Brazil, India, Singapore, South Korea and China but it's still largely a Western dominated market.

  • Comment number 13.

    Initially the European Southern Observatory’s next Extremely Large Telescope was going to be a 100m telescope, and then they went to 42m and now it may be just 30m. We’ll be doing the same.

    Just to set the record straight here, ESO originally looked at a conceptual design for a telescope (rather cutely codenamed "OWL" for the OverWhelmingly Large Telescope), but concluded that it was technologically not possible (not that it was not affordable), so did not pursue it. It then looked at a design for a 42-metre telescope, which it was concluded could be built. A recent review raised concern that there might not be a large enough budget to cover credible cost over-runs (not that it wasn't currently affordable), and so they are now looking at creating the necessary contingency by reducing the size of the telescope to 39 metres (not 30 metres). So, not really the same.
  • Comment number 14.

    Scrap all three, and beat the Yanks to Mars. While they're crawling there via the ISS and the Moon, and having to reinvent the technology at every step, we could adapt the "Mars Direct" mission profile to use SpaceX's Falcon-Heavy hardware to have a long-term manned mission on the surface of Mars within ten years.

  • Comment number 15.

    All three have the potential to revolutionise human understanding of nature and all three should be pursued. The cost for all three is pocket change for the EU and could easily payback for itself many times over from resulting technological advances. It is fundamental science like these three missions that advance us the most as a species, I find it very disheartening that they are paid so little attention.

  • Comment number 16.

    14. At 18:35pm 9th Apr 2011, Kiteman wrote:
    Scrap all three, and beat the Yanks to Mars. While they're crawling there via the ISS and the Moon, and having to reinvent the technology at every step, we could adapt the "Mars Direct" mission profile to use SpaceX's Falcon-Heavy hardware to have a long-term manned mission on the surface of Mars within ten years.

    I like your plan, brave, bald, revolutionary, would give a real kick to space exploration.

    An that exactly the reason why it will not happen, sadily.
    Falcon heavy, and what will probably be announce in the next 2-3 years Super Heavy launch vehicles have the potential to allow for fairly cheap missions to mars, if the mission are plan with off the shelf technologies I cannot see it costing more than 5 billion, but with the current structure of many space agencies aimed more for job creation rather exploring the cosmos it just not gonna happne.

    why congress still mandating Nasa to create a shuttle replacement and why Europe feel the need to reinvent the ATV is a complete mystery to me and it a absolute wast of resources and money which could be better spent on other projects.

  • Comment number 17.

    These are temporary set-backs. The exciting but currently disruptive news on this side of the pond is that commercial spacecraft and launch services are being spurred by NASA's CCDev program, fielding commercial capsules and lifting body spacecraft to provide crew transport services to LEO. NASA is getting out of the LEO transport business. Although disruptive in the sort term, this will ultimately lower costs to LEO access, spur incredible commercial space innovation and relevant to this article, free up NASA to focus more of it's expertise on BEO HSF and more involvement with the worthy efforts lists in this article.

  • Comment number 18.

    I think we should prepare to live on the moon, so we should be doing projects there first, and the rest of the projects mentioned can be done better from the moon as a base


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