Science: Britain: skinflint of space

The man leading Europe's assault on the final frontier needs more help from us, says Tom Wilkie
Of all the stars twinkling out of the darkness of the night sky, there are a few which are being circled, invisibly, by planets that may be capable of supporting life. In the down-to-earth surroundings of a London hotel last week, a neatly dressed Frenchman, Roger Bonnet, propounded his vision of how some of these planets can be revealed to us all.

M Bonnet is not a dreamer of grandiose Gallic dreams. As director of the science programme of the European Space Agency (ESA), he has charge of an annual budget of 342m ecus (£430m), and deals daily with the diplomatic task of securing support for his plans from the politicians and scientists of the agency's 14 member states.

Seeking the planets around nearby stars is only one component of the new strategy for space science that M Bonnet was in London last week to promote. He would like to send a space probe to Mercury, the only planet of our solar system not to have been visited; and about 20 years hence, he would like to launch a new type of telescope into orbit, which would not "see" in normal light, or even in radio waves or infrared, but would detect gravity waves emitted by some of the greatest convulsions of the cosmos.

Already planned and due for launch by the turn of the decade are missions to land a space probe on a comet and to launch a telescope to detect gamma rays, the highest energy radiation bathing the universe.

As we spoke, American and Russian astronauts were orbiting the Earth, preparing for the latest manned space spectacular. But behind that spectacle lies little science and, significantly, it featured not once in our conversation. M Bonnet's programme does not involve sending men or women into space, yet it contains some of the most exciting science to be done in space. But there is a problem, and its name is Britain.

If the Government does not find more money for space science by May, British astronomers will miss out on the gamma ray telescope. Italy will step in to provide the instruments to be carried on the satellite, known as Integral. Even though the UK initially proposed the Integral mission, it looks as if British scientists will not be able to pay their way with their European colleagues. Our participation in the future missions will also be threatened, or at best much reduced.

The longer-term danger is that the British attitude may cripple Europe's programme of innovation in space science, leaving us dependent on American technology. The effect would spill over from science into the industrially more important areas of communications satellite technology and earth observation satellites.

Britain is demanding cuts of 25 per cent in the ESA science budget, to free money for ourscientists to make the detectors and instruments that have to be loaded on to the common "bus" - the basic satellite or platform provided by ESA.

With implacable Gallic logic, M Bonnet believes that instead of saving money, Britain's penny-pinching attitude will make space science more expensive. Projects of this magnitude have to be planned years in advance and, once agreed, have to be funded on schedule. The gamma ray detectors on Integral are huge, M Bonnet says, but at around 300m ecus, the mission is only medium- sized in terms of its cost. "So how have we brought the cost down? We have contracted to use a Proton launcher in the former Soviet Union. But the other element is that we are using a similar bus to that carrying the X-ray Multiple Mirror mission in 1999. We developed these two at the same time, with major savings in costs."

This is the first time in 30 years that a European space project has economised by duplicating the "bus" to carry very different instruments. But the savings will be frittered away if the project does not keep to its timetable of launch in 2001. "The risk is that by delaying missions you may save money from year to year, but by extending the programme the cost is much higher by the end," M Bonnet says.

Beyond 2001, ESA is pinning its hopes on the Rosetta project to land a space probe on Comet Wirtanen. This "cornerstone" mission has to be launched in January 2003. (The timing is dictated by the orbit of the comet, which is indifferent to political and financial considerations.) It will cost nearly twice as much as Integral - around 650m ecus.

Rosetta represents the culmination of ESA's Horizon 2000, a programme of pre-planned cornerstone missions supplemented by more modest launches which do not require such long-term commitment. If they are approved, the mission to Mercury, the gravitational radiation telescope and the project to uncover planets around other stars will provide the "cornerstones" of the Horizon 2000 plus programme, stretching to the year 2015.

That may seem far distant, but M Bonnet needs money now to explore the feasibility of the projects. Spying out distant planets will be possible only by using a technique known as interferometry - taking a beam of light or infrared radiation and splitting it up for analysis by two telescopes. The technique, tried successfully on Earth, allows two small telescopes to mimic a single, much larger one. To detect gravitational radiation, M Bonnet believes, will require six satellites, five million kilometres from each other, but "their position must be accurate to a fraction of the size of the hydrogen atom". So, he continued, "we need money from our present budget to do studies to prove by the year 2000 that this is feasible."

And the budgets for the next five years, to the year 2000, are precisely what Britain wantsreduced.

Britain, M Bonnet said, "was once so enterprising in space, it is a shame to see what has happened". ESA appears to have a large budget, but it amounts to less than 20 per cent of the money that Nasa spends. Europe's total (civil and military) spending on space is around 16 per cent of the US's, though the GDP of the US and of the ESA member states is roughly the same.

At this level of investment, "Europe is sub-critical in space," M Bonnet says. "In the US, due to the effect of the billions of dollars injected into the Strategic Defense Initiative, they are making smaller and cheaper space programmes. Only in space science or in the military can you develop new technology, in other programmes the technology is not pushed to its limits. We in Europe run the risk of being dependent on technology developed in the US because we are obstructed in space science."