Space Anomaly

After yesterday’s marathon, I’m not planning today to post another lengthy item about the STFC prioritisation exercise which is now public. However, a number of people have asked me about an apparent anomaly in the rankings and, despite the hostile reception I received on the e-astronomer when I posted a comment there, I’ve decided to mention it briefly here in an attempt to explain what looks at first sight like a very strange state of affairs.

BepiColombo (no relation) is a Mercury Orbiter mission by the European Space Agency (ESA). It was selected as a result of a lengthy Europe-wide process. The UK space science community showed relatively little interest in the mission, but it had sufficient support elsewhere to avoid being cancelled about three years ago. So it was picked for the programme, and is now scheduled for launch in 2014. It will take about 6 years to reach Mercury and will take data for a year or two after that.

As is the case with these big ESA “cornerstone” missions, participating countries are called upon to bid to build instruments to fly on the spacecraft. Although this requires an additional investment from the funding agencies (in this case STFC) beyond the annual subscription, this is essentially the only way of securing a science return for UK Plc on the ESA subscription. The UK is in fact involved in two instruments on BepiColombo, a magnetometer and an X-ray spectrometer, although it is the second of these that has the main funding commitment from STFC. Roughly speaking, STFC has commissioned UK scientists and given them funds to build a UK part of BepiColumbo.

I’ll remark here that I always thought the most interesting thing about Mercury is its magnetic field – it’s quite surprising even that it has one – so given the chance I’d prefer to have seen the UK getting more involved in that. But what do I know? I’m just a physicist…

Anyway, in the UK’s recent prioritisation exercise, BepiColombo was graded 1 on a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high), reflecting the relatively low interest in this mission among UK space scientists. Many projects rated 3 were cancelled, and even those rated 4 and 5 are going to have their funds cut by 15 to 20% so it looks very strange to have BepiColombo retained in the final programme, especially if you’re working on an alpha-3 project that’s just been canned.

However, it’s all a bit more complicated than that. While the UK itself wasn’t particularly interested in this mission, it did attract strong support in the rest of Europe. The UK signed up to the whole ESA menu and was thus obliged to go along with it; a la carte was not an option. ESA decides its programme, with UK input, but we do not have a veto. STFC (and previously PPARC) entered into various agreements, including a Memorandum of Understanding, from which it would be disastrous to back out.

I don’t know how much BepiColombo is costing STFC, but it’s likely to run into millions. That money could have supported other things in the astronomy programme, including postdoctoral grants. But before you jump to the conclusion that astronomy has been stitched up, remember that the ESA subscription has also opened up new areas of research through missions such as Planck and Herschel. These are a boon to our research, but the privilege of being allowed to participate in them comes at the price of having to support things the UK astronomy community is less keen on. In this particular example the politics of the situation and the need to fulfil our obligations within ESA have trumped the scientific judgement of the UK community.

To put this another way, would you want to scrap UK participation in this mission if it also meant binning our involvement in Herschel, Planck, JWST and all the rest.

I’m not advocating we scrap BepiColombo any more than we should scrap any of the other primary elements of the ESA programme. However, I do think that the nature of this balancing act should be more widely known. Otherwise, as things stood, it just looks like some vested interest has taken the funds from more deserving causes in order to promote a pet project. I hope I’ve made it clear that did not happen and that STFC had no choice but to fund BepiColombo.

I think it helps to get these things out in the open, in apparent contrast to some colleagues in the space lobby who seem to prefer to silence debate rather than engage with it. It’s no wonder people get suspicious when that’s the attitude shown by those in positions of responsibility on STFC committees.

If I’ve said anything unfair or unreasonable here please feel free to comment, as long as you can refrain from gratuitous abuse…

12 Responses to “Space Anomaly”

  1. Mark McCaughrean Says:

    I think that’s a pretty fair summary of the situation regarding the UK’s position on Bepi, Peter, and agree wholeheartedly that it’s important that the community understands how ESA works. It is complicated, I freely acknowledge that, but I believe that nevertheless we do end up doing some excellent science, ranging from Planck and Herschel as you’ve noted, to Rosetta, a hugely important solar system mission, things that simply can’t be done from the ground.

    While today’s conversation over on Andy’s blog did get a little heated a times, I don’t think it’s quite fair to categorise those of us urging a balanced view of ESA’s activities as being a “space lobby”, trying to silence debate. After all, even though I work for ESA, I am firmly convinced that we need to make sure that we deploy the overall resources available to astronomy appropriately, doing what we can do on the ground, and only doing in space what really needs to be done there. As an example, I’d really like to understand better the impact Euclid would make on the question of dark energy if launched in 2018, with roughly ten years of painstaking ground-based progress under our belts in the meantime.

    That’s not to say that just because something can only be done in space that it’s somehow sacrosanct, however, but ESA represents a broad community of scientific and national interests, and it’s inevitable that sometimes there will be differences of opinion across those communities on some of the things we fly.

    Anyway, I just think it’s important that we astronomers try and take the high road at what is a very painful time, and avoid lashing out at apparent bogeymen like ESA and Bepi. As you said to me earlier today, some of our younger colleagues are perhaps not so au fait with the complexities of ESA, and so we should endeavour to present a balanced picture when possible, as your post has done here.

  2. Alan Heavens Says:


    It makes little sense scientifically to lobby for space or ground – some questions can only be answered from space, and others can be answered at lower cost from the ground, so I’m in agreement with you there. ESA has produced some excellent science, and Planck is expected to be the definitive primary CMB experiment, at least as far as unpolarised light is concerned. Euclid promises much more than ‘just’ a Dark Energy study (although it would be exquisite for that) – potentially evidence for extra dimensions, breakdown of Einstein gravity, determination of the neutrino hierarchy… and much more, including a host of legacy science.


    • telescoper Says:

      The real problem with the whole balancing act comes if ESA increasingly focusses on areas and missions in which the UK collectively has little scientific interest. Then it becomes much more difficult to justify the subscription. However, the answer to that is to be fully involved in arguing for a programme that reflects the priorities of scientists rather than politicians.

  3. Peter – you have explained well that the only issue seems to be one of transparency. However just a little patience is required. Although this announcement had only press release and PPAN gradings, I understand that PPAN expect to release feedback sometime in the New Year. I don’t know whether this will include explanation of politics or process – “we had no choice, guv” – but lets just see.

  4. Mark McCaughrean Says:


    I agree with you in principle, but in practice, is there any evidence that ESA is focussing on science areas in which the UK has little interest?

    Our missions in the mandatory programme in preparation at the moment (in order of launch date) are LISA Pathfinder (major UK interest), GAIA (ditto), BepiColombo (perhaps less so, but not zero), and JWST (huge for the UK). Then under study, we have EUCLID (huge), PLATO (ditto), Solar Orbiter (yes), SPICA (yes, although at one remove now that funding for SAFARI has been removed, but the scientific interest is significant as a successor to Herschel), Marco Polo (yes), Cross Scale (yes), LISA (yes), IXO (yes), and EJSM (yes [I think]).

    You may argue about the relative UK interest in each of these, but there’s no debate that it’s very significant in some and non-zero in all.

    Let’s ask the question the other way around: which areas of major UK space scientific interest (or even astronomy alone, perhaps) is ESA currently not flying, building, and/or studying a mission to address (while accepting that we can’t do everything)?

    Keep in mind, of course, that ESA doesn’t choose these things: the member states that pay into ESA choose through the SPC, and they generally follow the scientific recommendations of the AWG, SSWG, and SSAC, in which UK scientists are always well-represented. The UK won’t always get its way and nor should it in such a system, but it does pretty well.

    Aurora / ExoMars is something else, I agree, but that’s why it’s an optional programme: it’s important for us to separate the two kinds of money, although of course I understand that STFC does not.

    Finally, Alan, I have nothing against EUCLID at all (how could I?), but picked it as example of where we need to have a very serious discussion about where the ground-space synergies lie, since some of the science EUCLID is aimed at can be and is being done (at lower precision, different parts of phase space, etc.) from the ground. At the same time, I fully agree that there are also things it would do that could never be done from the ground.

    Same could be said for PLATO, for example, but not Marco Polo or Solar Orbiter, so a ground-space trade-off is not always applicable. Indeed, at the risk of being provocative, optical/IR astronomers might think about being a little careful of not overplaying their hand when criticising stuff that really only can be done in space, be it X-ray astronomy or sniffing Mars rocks. For them it’s space or nothing; for us, it could plausibly be E-ELT or EUCLID, not both, for example. In a world of constrained science budgets, things could get nast(y/ier).

  5. telescoper Says:


    I’m pretty sanguine about BepiColombo. I think it would have been better for the UK astronomy community as a whole if it had not been selected by ESA, but given that it was we were always going to have to play some part. As long as we still get all the other good things (GAIA,Planck, Herschel, JWST…) from ESA then we’ll just have to put up with it.

    I hope the scientific balance stays on the credit side through the forthcoming Cosmic Vision selection…


  6. Bryn Jones Says:

    I found Peter’s article very useful.

    The ESA and STFC strategies relating to BepiColombo may seem very clear to people within the magic circles of STFC policy discussion [that is discussion, not decision], but for those on the outside the issues have seemed rather odd. Indeed, on the outside it has looked as though there were some parallels with Moonlite policy: that some concept of industrial impact trumped scientific consideration.

    A central concern I have had for some years is whether BepiColombo will add significantly to what is being achieved by the American Messenger mission. Let us hope that it will.

  7. Mark McCaughrean Says:


    I agree that these things can seem a little murky at one remove, but an important central component (as Peter has correctly stated) is that participation in the ESA science programme is mandatory for all ESA member states. Thus, as a member of ESA, the UK has made an international agreement to put its money into BepiColombo and (all other ESA science programme missions) at a non-negotiable rate (proportional to GDP, effectively).

    The only way the UK can get its money back, so to speak, is to have an industrial involvement in the science programme. Indeed, it’s a key part of the ESA convention that the member states must get their money back in this way, so its incumbent on us to ensure that that happens. Now, we don’t have to balance this geographic return on a mission-by-mission basis (fortunately), just over the whole science programme over a running window of a few years. But Bepi is a big mission, so it’s hard for the UK (a big ESA contributor) to get its geographic return right without being involved in it.

    Keep in mind though Bepi was competitively selected as an ESA science mission in 2000, based on its science. Industrial and political issues play their part now, yes, but Bepi was definitely selected for its science.

    What is optional for the UK is signing up to provide bits of the payload, i.e. the science instruments. But given that there is scientific interest in Mercury in the UK, it seems perfectly understandable for people to bid to put an instrument on Bepi (see George Fraser’s MIXS post over on Andy Lawrence’s blog). Indeed, given that the UK is paying a significant amount of money in to Bepi industrially, it would seem a bit bonkers not to participate in its scientific return at some level.

    Finally, on the issue of Bepi and MESSENGER, this was directly addressed by the Balsiger committee that recently reviewed the science return of Bepi. They found that it would be a huge improvement on MESSENGER for a number of reasons: I’ll see if I can get a copy of the documents to you, if you’d like.

  8. Mark,

    Yes, I can see that there is a potential for real financial returns for British scientists and industry if the U.K. handles the opportunities of BepiColumbo correctly. I am pleased to learn that the mission will be a significant improvement on the current Messenger mission. That had not previously been to clear to me (and by extension, probably had not been clear to many other people). The process by which ESA selects programmes should be rigorous, but I had wondered whether politics had entered into the case of BepiColumbo, but clearly I was unnecessarily concerned.


  9. Mark McCaughrean Says:


    I think you’re (always) right to be concerned about how ESA is spending these large amounts of money and that the community are right to ask to be informed about and convinced of the scientific worth of all of our projects.

    I would also agree that, for a number of primarily sociological reasons, this has not always been the case and it’s one of my goals to develop a much wider communication between ESA and the scientists in its member states. Commenting here is part of that, but no substitute for a much more detailed scientific justification of what we’re up to.

    That all said, politics is also always at play in ESA: it’s unavoidable, I’m afraid, but again, the more you (all) know about how it works, the better, I think.


  10. beentheredonethat Says:

    “I’ll remark here that I always thought the most interesting thing about Mercury is its magnetic field – it’s quite surprising even that it has one – so given the chance I’d prefer to have seen the UK getting more involved in that. But what do I know? I’m just a physicist…”

    As you raised it, it’s worth noting that the magnetometer was very certainly going to be UK-led before PPARC abruptly pulled the rug on that a few years ago, to the surprise of many both here and abroad. The body that preceded STFC was also very capable of making irrational decisions at times.

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