Status Report

ESA Yearly Status Report on the Scientific Programme Year 2005

By SpaceRef Editor
December 30, 2005
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ESA Yearly Status Report on the Scientific Programme Year 2005

Full Report

1. Introduction

After another year of extraordinary success, the Science Programme looks towards a positive future, following the decision on the new Level of Resources agreed at the Berlin Ministerial Council meeting. The decision to grant a 2.5% annual increase recognises the importance of the Programme on a European scale not only from a scientific point of view. This sends a message of confidence and encouragement to the scientific community throughout Europe. A major element of achieving the outcome was the Cosmic Vision long-term plan, for which we are indebted to our advisory structure. Nonetheless, it has to be understood that the actual financial increment does not allow for more than a limited expansion of the core science programme.

The new Aurora exploration infrastructure offers perhaps more potential for a science return in Mars science and this may be more effective as a space science platform than the previous large ISS infrastructure project, where the possibilities for space science exploitation of the infrastructure have continued to recede during the year.

Our successes include the historic landing on Titan by the European Huygens probe on January 14th, an event followed over the entire world. Mars Express has throughout the year provided a stream of new information on Mars. After a nail-biting series of activities in the late Spring and Summer, the Italo-American MARSIS antenna was deployed and first results have been announced in early December. Smart-1 triumphantly completed its technological mission by achieving lunar polar orbit in the Spring and is now in process of conducting a scientific survey. The Agency’s experience and the science data are eagerly awaited by the nations following us back to the Moon – India, China, Japan and the USA. The Science Programme completed an outstanding year by launching Venus Express on a Starsem Soyuz-Fregat rocket on November 9th. From a scientific perspective, this mission seems to be opening a new era of international interest in Venus, Earth’s sister world, which suffered an early catastrophic greenhouse effect. An understanding of this remains of critical importance to Earth – as well as planetary-science.

Venus Express has quelled suggestions that the Agency could not do truly cheaper and faster missions. Venus Express was built in 33 months, on a time scale similar to a standard communications satellite. Having done this, one can examine the programme to see what allowed it. A programme as fast as this has to use as much ‘off-the-shelf” hardware and software as possible. It also cannot afford to fine-tune industrial return (so the remainder of the programme must be big enough to take up the slack) and one needs to have Agency and industry teams that have already completed largely similar tasks (in this case, Mars Express). Venus Express is yet more evidence of SPC using the Science Programme to explore innovative approaches to elements of the programme procurement. Major changes in approach to mission implementation and procurement have been introduced over the year at the SPC. Over the past decade, in response to demands for changes in procurement approach elsewhere, new mission implementation approaches have been introduced including imposing juste retour targets on primes, the hybrid ‘maximum target price’ approach to contracts, the streamlining of the traditional phase A/B/C/D development to launch, in favour of a competitive definition/non competitive implementation phase approach. The latter has also required a controlled interfacing of scientists and industry during the competitive phase. Following the disappointing outcome of the LoR debate in November 2001 at Edinburgh, the SPC itself moved to a creative restructuring of the programme (approved at the SPC Andenes meeting in June 2002) setting very reduced target prices for previously agreed programme elements.

The success of Venus Express can be attributed to Andenes. Similarly, the present much reduced demand on the programme foreseen originally for GAIA is another solid benefit in circumstances where the budget has more than 20% less spending power than when GAIA was selected.

In contrast, the problems of the Herschel-Planck programme represent a more disappointing outcome of innovative approaches. The SPC has studied, through a dedicated working group, the financial difficulties encountered in the development of the two cryo-cooled spacecraft, probably the most ambitious development projects ever undertaken by the programme. The collective nature of the management problems associated with the diffuse partnerships taken on by ESA for mission-implementation (with national institutes) and funding (with Member States and the Prodex programme) as much as the complex industrial structure required by such a large programme, contributed to the problems. The SPC chairman’s report issued in May 2005 and the lessons to be learnt were interesting reading. Policies introduced following lessons learned exercises on Herschel-Planck (and also Beagle2) are now taking effect. The introduction of formal agreements for payload development seek to introduce more managerial control over the impact of payload delays on projects as well as better empowering the scientific leaders of instruments. Formal agreements could well form a basis for ‘network of centres’ implementation in other spheres. At the same time, the effects of a more conservative approach to risk assessment and cost engineering put in place for future project cost assessment are now being felt.

The innovations referred to in the previous paragraph involve and even empower the SPC in critical managerial choices early on (in phase B) and allow applying sanctions with much less risk of the wasted expenditure that is inevitable if such actions were to be taken during phase C/D. At present, the SPC is due to make critical decisions on proceeding with GAIA and BepiColombo. Both are now predicted to exceed the Andenes targets. Moreover, at the time of writing, a formal agreement for the BepiColombo payload is yet to be agreed. It is expected that the SPC will make its critical decisions in February 2006.

Risk management has been pioneered in the Agency in the Science Programme. Using a more conservative risk assignment approach will come at a cost. The SPC and Council will need to decide the cost-benefit of the new priority for minimising surprises in the future. In this respect, the table at Annex “Average Schedule Elongation Factor” (ASEF) is worth analyzing. One sees the clear preponderance at high level of launch induced delays (Ariane or Shuttle) or delays induced by the technical or financial problems of payload providers or cooperating partners. Finally, the one risk in the hands of the agency is cryo-technology related (ISO). We can also look at the list and compare it to the future, ie, the existing portfolio of missions to come. Cryo-technology remains a risk element with both Herschel and Planck; however nobody can deny that payload development has been a bigger problem so far in this programme. JWST, LISA, LISA-PF, like Ulysses, HST, and SOHO are subject to risks from the US as well as an element of launch risk. Herschel, Planck and JWST hopefully will use an Ariane 5 ECA that is well-proven and so launch risk is much lower than with Cluster orRosetta. However, the move of Soyuz to Kourou and the use of VEGA are not entirely devoid of risk, although it may be impolitic to indicate this widely.

It is not intended here to reiterate the Science Programme’s part as a backbone of the Agency, two papers to Council made this point well during the year and the reader is referred to the documents ESA/C(2005) 68 and ESA/C(2005)157. However, it is important to look ahead. One special aspect of the Science Programme, which sets it apart (as evidenced for example by the large number of spacecraft currently in operation) is its capacity for taking a long term view and its long-term planning. The most recent long-term planning exercise ‘Cosmic Vision 2015-2025’ is now complete. The response to the exercise from the scientific community and the outcome, shows the exciting challenges that the European science community see ahead. The outcome of the Cosmic Visions process has been distilled through the SSAC and presented to the wider community at a symposium at ESTEC (April 19th to 22nd 2005). The exercises culminated in the SSAC report “Space Science for Europe 2015-2025 (ESA Publication BR- 247, summarized in the recently published brochure, which was distributed at the Ministerial Council). It is based on this report that the foundations for future science missions in the period 2015-2025 have been laid.

The list below indicates the major strands of research for the coming years:

  • Other worlds and life in the Universe,
  • Life and habitability in the solar system and beyond,
  • The early Universe,
  • The evolving violent Universe ,
  • The gravitational wave Universe,
  • From the Sun to the Earth and beyond,
  • Tracing the origin of the solar system,
  • Toward quantum gravity,
  • Beyond the standard model.

See pages 6 and 7.

Whether or not ESA and its Member States can step up to the challenge depends not only on the Berlin LoR but also on the SPC’s policy towards missions in the existing plan that exceed targets. Come what may, the document will inform technology targets for the programme, continuing to keep the Science Programme one of the key users for programmes like TRP, most likely to see technology from inception through to space use.

At the same time, one should question the reality of the vision. There have been suggestions from certain quarters that it is time once again for an external assessment of the scale of the Science Programme and its purpose, in the context of European science as well as its wider function within Europe and in sustaining infrastructure within the Agency. The last such review was made nearly twenty years ago and chaired by Professor Klaus Pinkau. We are now leaving a year where the programme has given the Agency unparalleled public attention and yet we are heading inexorably towards a spring of very hard decisions and cutbacks. It is clear that the effects of the peak in investment made a decade ago, are beginning to wear thin. It seems to the Executive sensible to ask once again for an external view on what should be the future perspective for management and resourcing the programme, that has been the backbone of the agency up till now.

SpaceRef staff editor.