No-show fears for comet date

January 28, 2000

The European Space Agency's bid to land a probe on a comet has been plagued by management delays that threaten to derail the whole project.

Officials have introduced a package of radical measures in their anxiety to bring ESA's most ambitious mission, which involves leading scientists from several universities in the United Kingdom, back on schedule.

The launch window for the rendezvous with Comet Wirtanen is so tight - just ten days in January 2003 - that the growing delays have prompted the agency to take immediate steps.

Roger-Maurice Bonnet, ESA scientific programme director, warned colleagues at Christmas: "The lander is not progressing at the right pace. Drastic actions must be undertaken."

The Rosetta spacecraft's ten-year, 2.6 billion-mile odyssey will take it beyond the orbit of Jupiter to reach Comet Wirtanen's nucleus in 2012. It will orbit the comet and study it in minute detail before sending a lander to its surface.

Named after the Rosetta Stone, which enabled ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs to be deciphered, the probe will help scientists decode the chemistry of comets, our solar system and maybe even the origins of life.

The enormity of the task, which will keep Europe well ahead of the Americans in comet science, has overwhelmed the mission's organisation, based around a collaboration of mostly German institutions with significant UK involvement.

Attila Peter, a Hungarian space scientist in charge of the probe's dust-impact monitor, said: "I think the organisation is poor, the information exchange is inadequate. Materials procurement problems and sometimes major decisions are made too late."

Colin Pillinger, professor of planetary sciences at the Open University who is leading a team of UK experts to analyse gases emitted by the comet, said: "If that narrow launch window is missed then all of the science that's been done on the comet will have been wasted."

Eight ESA scientists have been drafted in to bolster the effort while experts, including Ray Turner of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, have been invited to join a task force to tackle outstanding difficulties.

Dave Hall, the British representative on the Rosetta lander steering committee, admitted there had been a series of problems that had pushed the project behind schedule but was confident ESA's measures would turn things around.

Berndt Feuerbacher, the Rosetta lander project leader, said all of the partners involved in the project had agreed to take on extra responsibilities to speed things while the task force would iden-tify the necessary programme changes within three months.

Delays have also beset ESA's Integral gamma ray space telescope, which the UK pulled out of in 1995 to balance its science budget books.

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