Off the drawing board. ESA's Eddington planet-hunting observatory has fallen victim to budget cuts.

Europe Forgoes Far-Flung Planets

Daniel is a deputy news editor for Science.

Bowing to harsh budgetary realities, the European Space Agency (ESA) has aborted plans for the Eddington observatory, a $205 million effort to hunt for planets beyond our solar system. The agency has also canceled the first-ever visit to Mercury's surface by axing the lander from the upcoming BepiColombo mission.

The cuts, imposed by ESA's Science Programme Committee (SPC), are the unhappy consequence of a string of recent unforeseen events. "The wheels fell off the wagon," admits ESA science chief David Southwood. Last December, a rocket blew up (ScienceNOW, 13 December 2002), delaying the launch of two other science missions and boosting their costs by $90 million. Then some member countries failed to pony up money promised for building instruments for upcoming missions. Altogether, the science program found itself facing a $115 million shortfall for 2003.

The science program reassessed its priorities, which it then presented to ESA's Space Science Advisory Committee. That panel's key recommendation was to halt work on Eddington until the financial picture improves. But a delay would have driven the eventual cost up further, Southwood says, so ESA canceled the observatory.

The decision has left the Eddington team fuming. Ian Roxburgh of London's Queen Mary College, the project's coordinating scientist, accuses ESA of adopting a last-in, first-out policy to exclude Eddington. "I don't respect an institution that makes decisions on this basis," he says. "It's a bloody awful decision," adds Barry Jones of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Astrobiology at the Open University in Milton Keynes, U.K. Roxburgh and his colleagues are planning to lobby politicians and members of the ESA Council to reverse the decision.

Mercury buffs also got bad news last week when the SPC scrapped the lander from the BepiColombo mission to that fiery planet, which has not been visited since the 1970s. "It would have been a nice first" to land on Mercury, Southwood says, but the lander's design costs would have been substantial. ESA also decided to delay BepiColombo's launch from 2010 to 2012.

Related sites
ESA's Web page about Eddington
Overview of BepiColombo

Posted in Space