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Friday, 31 July, 1998, 12:58 GMT 13:58 UK
European space scientists face crisis
Saturn Esa
Esa's future mission to Saturn
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

Space science in Europe is reaching a crisis, according to Roger Bonnet, director of the European Space Agency's science programme.

He says space scientists involved in Esa missions to explore the planets and observe the Universe are going to face some difficult times due to dwindling budgets.

In a message to the European space science community, Roger Bonnet said: "The year 1998 is now at a turning point and all our missions are proceeding on schedule, but their fate depends on a number of decisions expected to be taken in the near future. However, the horizon is darkening."

Ulysses Esa
Ulysses around the sun
Part of the problem facing European space scientists is the delay in the next meeting of the ministers of Esa's member states. This is not expected to take place until next year. All important decisions concerning the future of the European space science effort will have to wait until then.

According to Bonnet at Esa's HQ in Paris "the prospects here are gloomy - we stand to lose more buying power. Even the strongest supporters of space science are now resigned and do not seem to have the will to fight anymore."

Despite its budget crisis the European Space Agency has made some remarkable scientific achievements:

  • Soho - the Sun monitoring satellite that has taken images of the Sun's "surface" and helped scientists understand the complex behaviour of high-temperature gasses and strong magnetic fields to be found there.
  • Iso, the Infra-red Space Observatory - although this mission ceased in April, it did carry out the most detailed survey of the sky in Infra-red light. It peered back to the beginnings of the Universe looking at the earliest galaxies as well as finding water vapour on Saturn's major moon, Titan.
  • Ulysses - a mission to analyse the solar wind, a stream of particles given off by the Sun. Ulysses has just completed one complete orbit of the Sun looking at it from entirely new directions.
  • There is also the Cassini-Huygens mission being carried out jointly with Nasa to send a probe to Saturn and Titan. It was launched last year on a seven-year voyage.

To save money Esa's space science division has been making economies. The selection of future space missions to place satellite observatories in Earth orbit as well as a mission to Mars have been carried at the fastest pace ever.

"Unfortunately, the times to come are cloudy because Europe, contrary to the US, is not investing in its scientific future at the right level. We run the risk of losing our leadership, so fiercely achieved."

Express Esa
Mars Express: In jeopardy?
As money becomes tight, Mr Bonnet warns against scientists squabbling between themselves, something that frequently happens.

"Fighting among yourselves or for your own interests would create no room for improvement. The science community should be unified in this very delicate situation."

"All of space science is in for a fight for survival, along with all of basic science. All scientists are allies in this fight, not enemies."

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