European space ministers last week agreed on an efficiency drive at the European Space Agency to cut the agency's costs by at least 15 per cent over the next five years.
The deal owes much to the United Kingdom's insistence that measures be undertaken to reform ESA operations, and will mean that the agency's budget will be held constant in cash terms over the next five years unless inflation exceeds 3 per cent in any year.
The UK's Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council estimates that this will reduce the cost to the UK of the ESA science programme by Pounds 15 million over the five years compared to the cost of fully inflated annual budgets.
PPARC spends Pounds 40 million a year on ESA, 20 per cent of its Pounds 194 million budget. Ken Pounds, PPARC's chief executive, said: "This is a very significant step towards getting ESA to address seriously the issue of operational reform and greater efficiency for the long-term benefit of all its members."
PPARC says that greater efficiency and a more cost-conscious approach offer the prospect of a cheaper ESA science programme. This will allow member states to invest more in their domestic programmes through which instrumentation is provided for ESA missions, an issue of particular concern to PPARC.
Professor Pounds stressed that the agreement will not endanger any space projects in which the UK is involved and will relieve PPARC's burden of providing for ESA inflation.
This will help to create a stable basis from which the council can plan for UK participation in future missions, he said.
But the deal does not solve all PPARC's inflation problems. ESA inflation for next year has been set at 4.3 per cent, 1.3 per cent above the 3 per cent limit set for the deal. This will mean PPARC finding an extra Pounds 500,000 next year for ESA.
Professor Pounds said that although pressures on the PPARC budget remain severe the council will aim to play its part fully on ESA missions. One of these is Rosetta, which is planned for around 2003.
The project plans to send a craft to an incoming comet. It will fly alongside it for two years to study changes in the behaviour and characteristics of the comet's surface as it nears the sun. Scientists also want to land a small probe on its surface.
Rosetta is one of the long-term ESA missions under its Horizon 2000 programme. Within the next year the programme hopes to launch a mission consisting of a satellite called Soho to investigate solar winds and storms. Their impact on the earth will be monitored by a set of four satellites, called Cluster. Other Horizon projects cover X-ray and infra-red astronomy.