It’s nice to have a bit of science stuff to blog about for a change. Just this week the European Space Agency (ESA) has announced the results of its recent selection process for part of its Cosmic Visions programme, which represents ESA’s scientific activity for the period 2015-2025.
The selection process actually began in 2007, with over 50 proposals. This list was then whittled down so that there were six candidate missions under consideration for the so-called M-class launch slots (M meaning medium-sized), and three in the L-class list of larger missions. The latest exercise was to select three of the M-class missions for further study. They succeeded in selecting three, but have also kept another, much cheaper, mission in the frame.
As far as I understand it, only two M-class missions are actually envisaged so the race isn’t over yet, but the missions still in the running are:
PLATO. The PLATO mission is planned to study planets around other stars. This would include terrestrial planets in a star’s habitable zone, so-called Earth-analogues. In addition, PLATO would probe stellar interiors by through stellar seismology. In some sense, this mission is the descendant of a previous proposal called Eddington. (PLATO stands for PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars – I’ll give it 3/10 for quality of acronym).
EUCLID. Euclid would address key questions relevant to fundamental physics and cosmology, namely the nature of the mysterious dark energy and dark matter. Astronomers are now convinced that these substances dominate ordinary matter. Euclid would map the distribution of galaxies to reveal the underlying ‘dark’ architecture of the Universe. I don’t think this is meant to be an acronym, but I could be wrong. Perhaps it’s European Union Cosmologists Lost in Darkness?
SOLAR ORBITER. Disappointingly, this is neither an acronym nor a Greek person. It would take the closest look at our Sun yet possible, approaching to just 62 solar radii. It would deliver images and data that include views of the Sun’s polar regions and the solar far side when it is not visible from Earth.
These are the three main nominations, but the panel also decided to endorse another mission, SPICA, because it is much cheaper than the approximately 500 Million Euro price tag on the other contenders. SPICA would be an infrared space telescope led by the Japanese Space Agency JAXA. It would provide ‘missing-link’ infrared coverage in the region of the spectrum between that seen by the ESA-NASA Webb telescope and the ground-based ALMA telescope. SPICA would focus on the conditions for planet formation and distant young galaxies.
Many of Cardiff’s astronomers will be very happy if SPICA does end up being selected as it is the one most directly related to their interests and also their experience with Herschel which is, incidentally, continuing to produce fantastic quality data. If SPICA is to happen, however, extra money will have to be found and that, in the current financial climate, is far from guaranteed.
Which of these missions will get selected in the end is impossible to say at this stage. There are dark mutterings going on about how realistic is the price tag that has been put on some of the contenders. Based on past experience, cost overruns on space missions are far from unlikely and when they happen they can cause a great deal of damage in budgets. Let’s hope the technical studies do their job and put realistic figures on them so the final selection will be fair.
Whatever missions fly in the end, I also hope that the Science and Technology Research Council (STFC) - or whatever replaces it – remembers that these are science missions, and its responsibility extends beyond the building of instruments to fly on them. Let’s to hope we can count on their support for research grants enabling us to answer the science questions they were designed to address.