Costing the universe

December 10, 1999

Mars Polar Lander is this week's costly space failure. Yet John Zarnecki argues we should spend more on space research

What is next in the following sequence - Mars '96, Cluster, Mars Climate Orbiter? The answer is the Mars Polar Lander - yet another expensive failure in space exploration. Why do we give such large sums to scientists and engineers to waste on these fruitless flights of fancy?

Mars '96 dumped its complex package of scientific instruments bound for Mars into the Pacific after its Proton rocket motor misfired in Earth orbit. Not to be outdone, the European Space Agency succeeded in exploding four spacecraft, collectively called Cluster, over the launch site in Korou, French Guiana.

The Americans can do it, too. Last September, confusion between two teams - one working in imperial units (rods, poles, perches, etc) the other in metric units - caused the Mars Climate Orbiter to approach too close to Mars and burn up in the atmosphere.

And now Mars Polar Lander. At the time of writing, this automated probe, designed to search for signs of water near the Martian South Pole, remains silent despite the attempts of controllers at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to "wake it up". So surely it is time to say "enough is enough", and direct our research money in other directions.

Bull****! Despite some highly visible failures, the record of space research on delivering the goods is remarkable. Apart from a few high-profile missions in recent years, such as Mars Pathfinder, which delivered a robot vehicle to the Martian surface in July 1997, the business of space research continues almost anonymously, delivering scientific results that progressively increase our understanding of the universe.

Space is now an environment that we use as a utility. In the geo-stationary orbit, 36,000km above Earth, spacecraft form a critical part of the network that allows information to flow around the globe. Worldwide weather forecasting has improved immeasurably since our weather systems have been subject to continual monitoring by a battery of meteorological satellites.

We design and build instruments sometimes to tolerances finer than a micron (a millionth of a metre), then place them on top of a rocket containing the equivalent of a vast quantity of high explosive. It is then subjected to a bone-shaking ride through the Earth's atmosphere. Once in space, whether it remains in Earth orbit or is directed to the more exotic environments of the Moon, Mars or more distant targets such as Saturn, the spacecraft will be subjected to extremes of temperature, a tougher vacuum than can ever be produced on Earth, cosmic rays and solar flares, and particles of cosmic dust travelling at 25,000km per hour.

And all the while, it must operate on less electricity than would power a light bulb in the average dining room, collect its data and send it back to Earth. And there is only one chance to get it right. We cannot usually get out our toolkit , change the fuse or fix a component.

Despite the difficulties, there have been some spectacular successes. The satellite Cobe (Cosmic Background Explorer) revealed the imprint of "the birth of galaxies" by looking so far into the distance that it was observing processes taking place in the earliest phases of the universe. Europe and the United States have combined to produce arguably the most complex robot spacecraft ever - the Cassini/Huygens mission - already two years into its journey to Saturn and its array of exotic moons. The next few days should see the launch of Europe's X-ray multi-mirror mission. By detecting X-rays from space, it will study the most violent and hottest environments in the universe.

Of course, it does not always work and the costs of failure always seem high - because we tend to make comparisons with costs of things in our everyday lives - a new car at Pounds 15,000 or a house at Pounds 150,000. By comparison, the Mars Climate Observer at Pounds 78 million or Mars Polar Lander at Pounds 103 million, seem expensive. But maybe a fairer comparison would be the cost of a Hollywood blockbuster - Titanic cost about Pounds 125 million, enough to have financed a deep-space mission with money to spare.

In the United Kingdom we spend a relatively small amount on scientific space research - an average of about Pounds 1 per person per annum. This is a fraction of what we spend on health and social security each year. This gives universities access to a fantastic range of space missions and gives our aerospace industry opportunities to develop technologies often at the very edge of what is achievable.

Those of us involved in space research do not expect special treatment. We know there are many demands on the nation's resources. But we would sometimes like to see support at least comparable to what is forthcoming in other industrialised European countries. Our financial, and public, support of space research lags well behind that of our competitors.

John Zarnecki is reader in space science at the University of Kent,


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