PARIS--The European Space Agency (ESA) has come up with an innovative strategy to ease the money problems plaguing its space science program: It plans to combine two astronomy missions by arranging their telescopes back to back on a single spacecraft.
ESA's shrinking budget and its decision this month to refly last year's failed Cluster mission are threatening to delay the schedules of other science missions. These include the 2007 launch date of the 3- to 3.5-meter Far Infrared Space Telescope (FIRST) and the 2004 launch of Planck, the rotating 1.5-meter mirror of which will detect microwave background radiation.
But ESA officials now propose combining the instruments for these two missions on a spacecraft to be launched in 2005. "By joining them, we can ensure the flight of both missions," says ESA's Serge Volonté. At minimum, this will save the cost of Planck's launch (60 million ECU, or $68 million).
"It is a compromise, but so far, [one] which will not harm the main scientific goals of the two missions," says astronomer Michael Rowan-Robinson of Imperial College in London. There is at least one drawback, however: Because Planck rotates while FIRST points to individual objects, the two telescopes will have to alternate taking data--stretching the planned time for FIRST (3.0 years) and Planck (1.5 years) to 4.5 years each, the total for the dual mission.