Rising from the ashes?

The disastrous failure of the Ariane 5 and Russian Proton rockets dashed the hopes of many scientists. But they may be rescued by a daring plan, codenamed `Phoenix'. By Charles Arthur
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The Independent Online
Imagine that you have spent 10 years of your life designing and building your dream house. Imagine the effort, the trials, the tears - and the triumph when you finally stand back to declare it finished.

At which point, a gas leak blows it up. Demolishes it utterly.

Do you think you'd be upset? If so, you're getting a glimpse of the feelings of the scientists who watched the Ariane 5 rocket explode on 5 June as it carried their experiments skywards. For some, the equipment that was destroyed represented the fruits of their professional lives.

"At the launch, I was really thinking, `This will make my career'," says Dr Andrew Fazakerley, 31, of the instrument team at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory. He helped build a magnetometer to measure the interaction of the magnetic fields of the Sun and Earth. They did recover what was left of it: twisted, charred, and in no shape to do magnetometry any more.

Also wrecked was the promise of the data that it would have sent back from its mission. That put paid to any research papers that might be written from that data. So it's not only 10 years' past work gone in a flash; it's future work too. "The questions have been piling up for 30 years, and this would have answered them," he says.

To pile on the pain, many of those same scientists had to go through it all again last week, when the Russian Proton rocket carrying the Mars 96 mission crash-landed in the Pacific Ocean after a booster stage failed.

"I was in the lab on that Sunday," says Dr Fazakerley. "I was with someone who had spent eight years working solely on an experiment for that launch. Straight out of university and into that. Next morning he finds it's not going to produce anything.

"It's very hard to explain this, and how it feels, because most people don't work in that way."

However, there is a gleam of hope for those who lost work in the Ariane disaster: this week, the project may receive a new lease of life.

On Wednesday, the European Space Agency's Science Policy committee meets in Paris to decide whether to go ahead with a project named, appropriately enough, "Phoenix".

The idea would be to rebuild, as cheaply as possible, a mission which would launch those experiments again. A detailed cost analysis has shown that it would cost ESA about pounds 150m to build Phoenix. By using spares from the original, the price could be held down. "It would be a cheap method of doing it," said Professor Steve Schwartz, announcing the idea on behalf of a team of UK scientists who are backing it.

"Not cheap, Steve - cost-effective," corrected Professor David Southwood, whose team in the physics department at Imperial College, London lost experiments in both failed launches.

However. the British scientists point out that success depends on two things: a quick decision, and a willingness by the Government to find an extra pounds 7m of funding over the next four years to rebuild the equipment for the experiments.

If the decision is not approved by the end of next week, the teams of specialists who have been working on the programmes will start to split up and their expertise will be lost. More than 300 scientists in 20 countries have worked on the projects. But it's British teams who are most in need of the extra funding.

"Britain was very successful in the original mission in getting more than its share of instruments on board," says Prof Southwood. Three of the 11 experiments were home-grown. "But that means that re-equipping it is a particular problem for us." He puts the cost into perspective by pointing out that it represents just 2 per cent of the amount invested so far across Europe.

He acknowledges that the Treasury seems to be the biggest obstacle to a successful flight of Phoenix. Confronted with the idea of paying to rebuild the scientific instruments, hard-line monetarists (or whatever name they now go by) may say that the scientists should have done what any home-builder would do - insure themselves.

But that was not reasonable, according to Prof Southwood. "We didn't buy insurance, because it's not sensible for something that's a one-off," he says. "How do you buy another Picasso? It's not the same, even if you get Picasso to paint it again."

Who expected any problem? (Not this writer, who turned down the chance to see the launch in Guyana.) Not Prof Southwood. "I wasn't worried beforehand about the Ariane - especially not its software. [A software fault led to the rocket's self-destruction.] And the [Russian] Proton is a workhorse spacecraft - I didn't expect problems there."

To which the monetarist might answer: what's the use of the work, anyway? The Cluster experiment would measure the gusts of charged particles flowing from the Sun, to help understand how the Earth's magnetic field protects us from them. Four spacecraft would be needed, to give a three-dimensional picture of the interaction.

And what does that have to do with the price of fish? Coincidentally, on the day the British team was setting out its call for ESA and government approval, a panel of US government scientists announced that the Sun is entering a three-year weather "cycle" which will send out electromagnetic storms through space that could affect industries such as power supply, satellite communications, oil drilling and rocket launches. The last time it happened, electricity supplies in Canada were severely affected. The Cluster instruments would have been ideally placed to measure these changes and help scientists understand them. Not just the stuff of ivory towers.

But until Wednesday, the teams will have to wait, wondering quite where their lives go from here. "If Britain declared that we can't deliver the instruments for Phoenix, then everybody would know that it's not worth going ahead with it," says Prof Southwood. "We don't want to spoil the ship for a ha'porth of tar."