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Missions Impossible

6 May 2003 (All day)
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Grounded. NetLander is one of 10 projects to be delayed or abandoned by the French space agency.

PARIS--In a move designed to eliminate its current budget crisis, the French space agency CNES announced last week that it will pull the plug on the ill-fated $350 million NetLander mission to study martian weather and geology and will ax its $9.3 million contribution to the U.S.-led Gamma Ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST).

CNES's predicament was caused by poor control of its budget over a number of years, leaving it with more missions than it could afford. When the problem was identified last year, the budget was overcommitted by $100 million. Cutting costs and carrying over some expenditures shaved that to $39 million by year's end, and last week's cuts were intended to finish balancing the books. The belt-tightening should give CNES a new "margin for maneuver" by 2005, says CNES president Yannick d'Escatha.

NetLander had looked vulnerable ever since NASA's decision last month not to provide a launcher and to stop funding for the mission (Science, 2 May, p. 719). There is still a chance that the European Space Agency (ESA) may adopt the mission; the CNES board said last week that from now on the agency will pursue Mars exploration through ESA. CNES will also punt on GLAST, a gamma ray telescope to study the most violent and energetic objects in the universe, such as merging neutron stars or supermassive black holes.

Other casualties include Pléïades, a small Earth-observing satellite, and Megha-Tropiques, a Franco-Indian mission to study the water cycle in the tropical atmosphere. In all, 10 missions will be scrapped or frozen, saving the agency $450 million between now and 2008. Nevertheless, d'Escatha says CNES will need its $760 million annual budget to be increased by 1% in 2004 and 2005 if it is to maintain its slimmed-down program.

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CNES
NetLander
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