European Science Foundation Questions ExoMars, ISS Funding Mechanism

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PARIS — A leading European space science organization urged the European Space Agency (ESA) Oct. 25 to think twice before diverting scarce science monies to support optional ESA programs such as the ExoMars mission and the international space station (ISS).

The group also expressed doubt as to whether ESA’s science budget, which limits large-class missions to some 700 million euros ($910 million), is sufficient to fund the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) mission with NASA.

Big science, the group says, occasionally needs missions in the multibillion-dollar category such as the James Webb Space Telescope under construction for NASA.

In recommendations addressed to ESA’s upcoming ministerial conference, scheduled for Nov. 20-21 in Naples, Italy, a committee of the European Science Foundation (ESF) distributes praise to just about every science and Earth observation program now operating or being planned at the 20-nation ESA. The praise extends to ExoMars and to the international space station, both of which ESF says fill valuable roles in support of European research and technology.

But the ESF says raiding the science budget — funded by mandatory contributions from ESA governments — to fund optional programs such as ExoMars and the space station is not good policy.

The foundation says it is “concerned that these precedents could lead ESA to direct funding from the mandatory program to support optional programs whenever these would be facing budget problems.”

ExoMars has budget problems to spare. Backers of the two-launch mission to Mars, planned for 2016 and 2018, are asking ESA’s Science Program Committee for around 50 million euros to help fill ExoMars’ funding gap. ExoMars backers, including ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain, want ExoMars to be classed as an ESA science “mission of opportunity” and thereby become eligible for science funding.

In addition, Dordain is asking the science program for about 150 million euros in the near term for ExoMars, on condition that the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, agree to launch ESA’s Juice mission to Jupiter later this decade. The 150 million-euro figure is the approximate amount that ESA’s science program would spend to launch Juice on a European Ariane 5 rocket.

Managers of ESA’s space station program have similarly reached into the space science coffers for station utilization efforts when those ESA governments backing the station have been unable to meet program financial requirements.

The ESF does not explicitly say it opposes helping finance ExoMars from the science budget, especially since the ExoMars mission is so highly valued by ESF members. The document leaves unresolved what it calls “the dilemma of ExoMars” by stopping short of an opinion on either side of the issue.

The European Space Sciences Committee (ESSC), which wrote the recommendations, issued a statement Oct. 26 saying that “if consensus is achieved on the value of funding ExoMars after it being evaluated against other activities in the science program, then this approach would be acceptable. What the ESSC wants to avoid is a situation where other optional activities in the Agency with scientific return might drain funds from the mandatory programme, resulting in a loss of its long-term consistency.”

ESA’s science program budget is set in five-year chunks and then renewed every three or four years, at the agency’s ministerial conferences. Once a consensus on funding is reached, all ESA members contribute a fixed level based on each nation’s gross domestic product.

The ESF does not limit its recommendations to science policy. It urges ESA to fund technology development to render Europe independent of the United States for certain technologies deemed critical to space science and exploration efforts.

Such technologies, the ESF says, include detectors used in astronomy missions, and radioisotope-based energy sources for missions too far from the sun for solar power.

The group says that despite the long-established habit of scientists to collaborate across disciplines, such is not the case for funding agencies. The result, the document says, is that ground-based astronomy facilities and spaceborne platforms each appear to be developed without regard for what the other is doing.

The ESF is not the first to criticize the fact that ESA’s convention prohibits the agency from funding data analysis and exploitation of science data. That job is left to individual nations, whose work is “fragmented” and “inadequate,” the ESF says.

The document says that on European programs in which NASA is collaborating as a junior partner, U.S. scientists often have easier access to data than their European counterparts because it is collected and stored by NASA.

The ESF proposes that ESA and the commission of the 27-nation European Union, who are already sharing responsibility for space funding in Europe, address the issue so that a central data-storage capability is created.