Bad News for Astrophysics from ESA

Just a quick post to pass on the news (which I got from Steinn Sigurdsson’s blog) that the ESA Executive (see correction in comments below) Space Science Advisory Committee (SSAC) of the European Space Agency (ESA) has made a recommendation as to the next large mission to be flown. The short list consisted of a mission to Jupiter’s moons (JUICE), an X-ray observatory (ATHENA), and a gravitational wave observatory (NGO). The last two of these are severely de-scoped versions of missions (IXO and LISA respectively) that had to be re-designed in the aftermath of decisions made in the US decadal review not to get involved in them.

Not unexpectedly, the winner is JUICE. Barring a rejection of this recommendation by the ESA Science Programme Committee (SPC) this will be the next big thing for ESA space science.

The School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University has a considerable involvement in gravitational wave physics, so the decision is disappointing for us but not entirely surprising. It’s not such a big blow either, as we are mainly involved in ground-based searches such as LIGO.

The biggest local worry will be for the sizeable community of X-ray astronomers in the UK. With no big new facilities likely for well over a decade one wonders how the expertise in this area can be sustained into the future, even if LOFT is selected as one of the next medium-sized missions. Or, given that STFC funding is already spread extremely thin, perhaps this is time for the UK to organize a strategic withdrawal from X-ray astronomy?

27 Responses to “Bad News for Astrophysics from ESA”

  1. Mark McCaughrean Says:

    Peter, as I’ve justed posted on Steinn’s blog, the proposal to SPC comes from the ESA Executive, not from the SSAC. The SSAC made its recommendation to the Director and that was one of several inputs which have gone into the Executive’s proposal to SPC.

    So, in that sense, ESA have already accepted the SSAC’s recommendation. What comes nest is the SPC meeting on May 2, where they (i.e. delegates from each of ESA’s 19 member states) will decide whether or not to accept the Executive’s proposal.

    This doesn’t change anything substantive re: likely winners and losers, but it’s important to realise how this decision-making process works.

    • Mark McCaughrean Says:

      Sorry: typing too fast: “… as I just posted …” and “… what comes next …”.


  2. Per B. Lilje Says:


    Just to elaborate even more:

    The decision on selection is made by ESA’s Science Programme Committee (SPC, a committee where each ESA member country has one vote) in the afternoon of the 2nd of May. The recommendation from the Executive, and also the recommendation from the Space Science Advisory Committee (SSAC), are important inputs to the SPC. The chair of the SSAC will give a résumé of the discussion in the SSAC, and also the discussions in the working groups that give advice to the SSAC (Astronomy Working Group, Solar System Exploration Working Group and Physical Sciences Working Group), i.e. the whole Advisory Structure. Of course, also explanations of technical end programmatic matters will be given to the SPC by the Executive.

    However, the vote will be yes or no (by simple majority) to the proposal made by the Executive, and that is to approve the selection of the JUICE mission as the “L1” mission in the Cosmic Vision plan, with a foreseen launch date of 2022.

    The full text of the Executive’s proposal is the following: “Following the conclusions of the re-formulation study activities for the 3 L1 mission candidates, and the recommendation issued by the Advisory Structure to the Science Programme, the Director of Science and Robotic Exploration is proposing to SPC to select JUICE for the L1 launch opportunity”.

    The conclusions of the SSAC’s advice are the following:

    “The SSAC carefully considered both the scientific and programmatic aspects concerning the three mission candidates, including their scientific value and the overall impact on the Science Programme. After an extensive discussion the SSAC came to a consensus and recommends the JUICE mission to be selected as the L1 mission leading to a launch in 2022.

    The SSAC unanimously recognized the high scientific value of NGO and therefore recommends continuing the necessary technology activities to enable a gravitational wave observatory to be a strong candidate for the next launch slot.

    The SSAC also recognized the science value of ATHENA and therefore recommends continuing the necessary technology activities for enabling an X-ray observatory to be a strong candidate for the next launch slot.”

    It is here certainly worth recognizing that this is the consensus of the SSAC, a consensus that was not seen in the most recent selection. I will not elaborate on the difference between “unanimously recognized the high scientific value” and “also recognized the scientific value”.


    • Per, the SSAC reached a consensus but were far from unanimous from the rumours circulating. Does this matter for the choice of a billion Euro mission?

  3. As the Lead Scientist of the LOFT Dense Matter Science Working Group, I can only urge the UK to stay involved. The slow shift in UK astronomy from stars to galaxies/cosmology is already marked (and indeed I’ve long since given up any hope of coming back to my home country, given the reduction in investment in this area) but it would be really sad if the country that discovered neutron stars pulled out of this science area completely. It’s not just about ‘X-ray astronomy’, it’s about studying the nature of matter at the very highest densities. And that is pretty profound in terms of fundamental physics.

    • Phil Uttley Says:

      To add to Anna’s point, I would also say that ‘pulling out of X-ray astronomy’ means ‘pulling out of any serious attempt to study accreting black holes’, i.e. the most efficient power sources in the Universe, responsible for feedback, reionisation etc. etc…. With a gap in the X-rays it will be much harder to study AGN let alone black hole X-ray binaries (also first identified by UK astronomers, i.e. Cyg X-1!).

  4. hde226868 Says:

    I think that the decision against NGO could be foreseen, in light of the fact that any decision for NGO before its technology has been proven through the pathfinder would have been premature. And with the ground based experiments, the experience can be preserved, plus the report by Favata (i.e., the executive) is very positive concerning the L2 slot.

    But the real disaster is for X-ray astronomy. I think it will take some time for the whole astronomical community to realize what the decision against Athena means, namely that a whole diagnostically important 0.1-10 keV band will disappear. This is not only a problem for those astronomers who, like me, mainly work with X-rays, but also for the remainder of astrophysics. Europe will be investing significant amounts of money in CTA and in SKA, for example. But how are people going to interpret spectra of TeV sources and convert detections to physics with a gap from the optical to the TeV? And how are people going to study most SKA sources if they don’t know their high energy emission? And if one looks at the science case for instruments like the LSST or the E-ELT, without complementary X-ray observations many of these science cases will loose significantly (e.g., black hole evolution, Galaxy cluster science, and so on). Many of these sources are variable, so using archival data won’t help at all. These fields will suffer tremendously, since the information that they now take for granted just won’t be there.

    In addition, with the exception of Germany with eROSITA and potentially LOFT, no European country will have a participation to high energy missions in the next 15 years (the French missions have been frozen). This means that the technological leadership in X-ray astronomy that the Europeans have right now and that was built up in the last 30-40 years will disappear in the next few years, similar to what happened with UV astronomy. And that is a shame.

    So, this is what we get for this: A mission that is already overweight, which means that the 11 instruments on it will have to be reduced (i.e., the SPC delegates from the smaller countries voting for Juice will realize soon that they won’t be getting their instruments), that will be launched in 2022, and then start delivering science in 2030. In other words: this decision resulted in an ESA science program that with very few exceptions won’t produce results in the 2020s because there is no flagship mission during that time.

    Extremely frustrating, this..

  5. There is a petition for ATHENA floating around in astrophysics circles:

  6. Is the suggestion for strategic withdrawal from X-ray astronomy simply meant to be inflammatory, or is it serious? I can’t quite see why X-ray astronomy should be singled out in this way, but no doubt somebody will elucidate.

    • telescoper Says:

      It wasn’t meant to be inflammatory, but it is a discussion that needs to be had. Funding is extremely tight and may get worse after the forthcoming CSR. Is it better to spread the jam even more thinly, or to focus on areas which appear to have a healthy mid- to long-term future?

      X-ray astronomy is entirely dependent on space missions and it seems to me the UK must target its resources in areas which offer a strong scientific return from our participation in ESA. If there aren’t going to be any such missions in the ESA programme – which isn’t at all certain yet, but might happen – then the future of X-ray astronomy looks rather barren to me. It wouldn’t be an irrational decision in the light of budget constraints to concentrate funding elsewhere in the science programme.

  7. […] Millionen weitere Instrumente zu liefern. Mehr zur jetzigen Vorentscheidung auch hier, hier, hier, hier und hier. Gefällt mir:Gefällt mirSei der Erste, dem dieser […]

  8. The bad news are for Astronomy as a whole -and not only for X-ray Astronomy-, if SPC votes in favour of ESA’s executive proposal. The current situation with VLT, HST and XMM+Chandra synergetic operation will not be there in the 2020s. ALMA, the E-ELT, JWST will do transformational science in the 2020s, but no X-ray observatory will be operational to help out. How will galaxy evolution surveys be conducted without knowing in which one of them hosts an actively growing supermassive black hole? A full decade is likely to be lost

  9. Having watched how Plato was shunted aside for SO & Euclid, despite widespread skepticism over the latter’s ability to meet the budget, I can but sympathise. The ESA process seems more about the politics of contracts for the larger contributary nations than any other consideration.
    How did the UK reps vote by the way? Despite having a UK PI, the UK didnt back Plato.

  10. Nope, just an observation. Naively one might think the UK would back the project it’s leading, but in retrospect it was quite clear for some time that wasn’t going to be the case. Why Euclid, despite the clear concerns over the budget? Because the majority of UK astronomers are cosmology or extra-galactic orientated? That would be understandable if ultimately we go with what the majority want (PPARC/STFC have never spent big money on any exoplanet mission or instrument). But also because there are more contracts for UK industry? Both? I believe France and Germany preferred Euclid partly for industrial contract reasons too.

    • Mark McCaughrean Says:

      Matt – again, the SSAC has made a recommendation to the Executive and the Executive have made a proposal to the SPC. But the SPC’s decision on that proposal does not take place until May 2 and so there’s no question of “UK reps” having voted yet.

      There are two UK scientists on the SSAC at the moment, but they’re not “UK reps”: they’re there as individual experts, not to represent national interests. Their names are in the public domain (google for ESA SSAC) and you won’t have to walk very far to have a chat with one of them.

      Please don’t muddy the waters here by comparing the current situation on L1 with the M1/M2 decision. They are definitely different. And while industrial juste retour is, by the very nature of the convention which governs us, an important part of ESA, it was not the dominant factor in M1/M2 and has played essentially zero role in the L1 decision-making process thus far.

      It’s a complicated business and there are always many factors in play; it just doesn’t help to over-simplify and point fingers.

      L1 was only ever going to end up with one very happy winning community and two very disappointed silver medallists. So while I fully sympathise with the huge frustration and concern being expressed in the X-ray and gravitational wave communities at the moment, it should be clear that when viewed from the higher level of “space science”, rather than just astrophysics, 67% of the candidate fields were always going to end up without a flagship mission in the current round.

      As for what comes next for possible future big missions, after the L1 selection, we’ll have to see what the outcome of the Council of Ministers in November is, as that will set our budget and planning for the coming few years.

      Although it’s not exactly the best time for many European countries, I suspect that the chances of ministers investing more money in ESA’s science programme would be higher if the disappointed communities positively concentrate on talking to them about the excellent science we could do and lead with more money, rather than taking inter-discipline potshots and saying that “ESA” are making bad decisions. (I put that in quotes because ESA doesn’t decide; the Member States through the SPC decide).

      • Mark McCaughrean Says:

        p.s. From where I was standing, PLATO didn’t have a UK lead (we don’t have PI’s for M-class missions): it had a French one, Claude Catala. The UK’s role in PLATO was not as large in the end as you appear to be suggesting.

        However, the M3 exoplanet transit spectroscopy mission candidate, EChO, does have a significant and potentially leading UK interest, and I’m sure that the UKSA delegation has a strong view on that.

      • Will Sutherland Says:

        Mark – thanks for the clear and balanced explanation above. I’m not an X-ray specialist myself, but if I understand correctly the roughly chronological list of upcoming ESA astro/planetary missions is :

        Gaia; LISA Pathfinder ; Bepi-Colombo ; ExoMars orbiter ; ExoMars Lander ; JWST (fraction) ; Solar Orbiter ; Euclid ; JUICE.

        All of these are clearly strong, but this looks like five Solar System, one technology demo and “2.5” other Astronomy, (counting JWST as half due to the small ESA time fraction)… this does appear to be distinctly slanted towards the Solar System, given the relative size of the communities.

      • stringph Says:

        Mark, this moral-high-ground-hogging about ‘viewing from a higher level’, finger-pointing, water-muddying, never criticizing ESA for anything, etc. is all very well, but do you not recognize the difference between a good and a bad decision, or a good vs. bad decision-making process? And do you believe a good decision-making process was followed here to reach the SSAC recommendation?

        If so, can you give a brief and clear explanation of why JUICE was chosen over the other two missions? No documentation I’ve seen gives any reasoning for the decision, and personally, I think a decision without clear reasoning is unlikely to be a good one.

        If the process itself is bad (eg non-transparent, disorganized or unfair) then disappointed parties have a legitimate cause. On this topic there is evidence being passed around that the parameters considered for the NGO proposal (eg cost, technological readiness, schedule) were changed unexpectedly, to the disadvantage of the mission, either a few days before the SSAC meeting or during the meeting itself. Whoever was responsible for this, having one of the missions become a moving target at the last minute is unlikely to lead to clear or fair decision-making.

  11. Phil Uttley Says:

    It does however look like space-based missions from the two biggest agencies are moving to only solar system probes or IR telescopes and primarily to opposite ends of the astronomical spectrum: fundamental physics (i.e. dark energy) and planets or exoplanets. We will miss a lot in between. Unfortunately the stuff in between may be pretty important for understanding everything else (try understanding dark energy if you don’t understand your standard candles…).

    Regarding M3, I believe the UK also has some involvement in LOFT (MSSL & Leicester as well as a lot of the wider UK X-ray community), so as a member of the LOFT science team I would urge UKSA not to be too blinkered in it’s choice… 😉

  12. Paddy Leahy Says:

    As a recent member of the Astronomy Working Group, I guess I can make a few points:

    * Will Sutherland’s list of missions include ExoMars, which is funded from an entirely different ESA budget, namely the solar system exploration programme. Most member states have specifically signed up for this and in doing so they put in extra money to ESA. Obviously if you roll the exploration programme in with the space science programme, you will see an apparently strong bias to solar system missions.

    * Will also misses out Astro-H, the Japanese X-ray observatory due for launch in a few years time, to which ESA is also contributing and which therefore will have dedicated time for European observing proposals.

    * ESA is currently considering making a major contribution to SPICA, the Japanese-led successor to Herschel. This is likely to launch around the same time as JUICE, if it gets the go-ahead
    in Japan.

    * The M3 mission is expected to launch before JUICE and three of the five candidates for it (LOFT, EChO and PLATO) are astrophysics missions.

    * Unless the member states decide en masse to slash ESA’s budget on a permanent basis, it will continue to launch medium-class missions every few years, and on past form the X-ray community will put in several strong proposals at each opportunity. I would guess the chances of one of these getting the go-ahead before the end of life of XMM and/or Astro-H in the mid 2020s are pretty high. So European X-ray astronomy is in pretty good health despite this knock-back, certainly no worse than
    in the US.

    * Every serious space science mission proposed to ESA seems to have strong UK involvement at the highest level. So as a member of the advisory structure, there was very little opportunity for the temptation to prioritise a mission because of UK involvement. Of course, we are supposed to judge strictly on scientific grounds without taking account of national or commercial factors.

  13. Andrew Liddle Says:

    I am one of the current UK members of the Astronomy Working Group and support what Mark and Paddy have said from the ESA point of view. All three of the L1 missions were of excellent quality and each is the outcome of many years of work by large numbers of individuals, so to have to downselect to one mission necessarily involves huge disappointment in some sectors. Unfortunately the ESA budget is nowhere near sufficient to allow uninterrupted coverage of all areas of space-based astrophysics. Nevertheless we are considerably better placed than our US colleagues with NASA.

    As the ESA document linked above shows, the AWG recommended Athena for L1, while also strongly supporting NGO. As the other two working groups each supported the mission in their domain (Juice for solar system exploration and NGO for physical sciences), the decision on recommendation was effectively passed to the SSAC and the Executive. As Mark stresses, national agencies have yet to express their views which they do via the SPC; working group members are individual advisors to ESA on science quality alone, and do not represent national interests or judge non-scientific criteria such as programmatics and industrial juste retour.

    I agree with Paddy that the X-ray picture is not as bleak as some above have been painting. XMM looks likely to continue operations until at least 2020, Astro-H has significant European involvement, and LOFT is a competitive bid to M3. If ESA funding maintains its current baseline after the ministerial there will also be an upcoming L2 opportunity.

    Regarding UK involvement, Paddy is right that *all* the M1/M2 and L1 mission candidates have had such substantial UK involvement that it is really not possible to distinguish them on that criterion. It is worth noting that at the final plenary presentations to the ESA selection for M1/2 and L1, the ones which had a UK-based presenter were Euclid, Solar Orbiter, and Juice; the UK is clearly punching well beyond its weight in successful missions.



    • … and the Athena project was presented by Paul Nandra, who only relatively recently moved to Germany from Imperial.

  14. Mark McCaughrean Says:

    In reply to your comments, Will, I think Paddy and Andrew have provided some very clear and useful additional input from the perspective of recent and current AWG members.

    In particular, it’s not entirely obvious whether the two ExoMars missions should be counted in any kind of “solar system vs astronomy” balance sheet, as they’re funded from a separate optional programme focused specifically on Mars. Of course, viewed from 10,000 metres, one could put everything together in one big “European space science” pot and look at the balance, but that’s not how it is in reality.

    And without wanting to go too far down the rabbit hole of inter-field rivalry, I suspect that while from the astrophysics perspective both Solar Orbiter and JUICE can be lumped together as “solar system”, the people involved in those two missions don’t necessarily see themselves having a huge amount in common, scientifically. After all, I regularly encounter Martians who claim not to understand each other at all, as some work on the atmospheric science and some on the geology of the Red Planet.

    I suppose the same goes for astrophysicists of different wavelength and/or distance-from-the-Sun varieties, and in my experience, interdisciplinary solidarity can be an ephemeral and fragile thing indeed.

    By the way of a very dubious analogy, witness how much (perhaps misguided) fervour there is for the England football team when a major championship comes along, regardless of the geographical origin of the players. And then look at the bitter rivalries that resurface between teams from cities only 30 miles apart (e.g. Liverpool and Manchester) and even within cities (e.g. Liverpool and Everton) when the “unifying event” is over.

    Space science: 30% science, 70% sociology?

  15. Has PLATO really become a M3 candidate?

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