Space scientists are expected to learn next week whether their dreams of relaunching the ill-fated Cluster mission, which came to an abrupt end last June, will come true.
Nine months after the rocket Ariane V, with four identical Cluster satellites aboard, disintegrated 40 seconds after launch, the European Space Agency is due to finally decide whether Cluster should fly again.
According to Leicester University's Stan Cowley, who was part of the British contingent which lost years of research and millions of pounds worth of instrumentation aboard Ariane V, the European Space Agency is faced with a number of options.
ESAhas agreed that any attempts to refly Cluster must be done within a $210 million (£130 million)budget.
It has already spent $20 million refitting Phoenix, a fifth satellite, identical to the four destroyed in the Ariane V launch, but is unclear whether three new identical satellites, as well as a launcher, can be built for the remaining $190 million.
"It has been shown that it is not feasible to build three spacecraft and launch them on a European rocket," said Professor Cowley. "So a Russian launcher has been suggested, which is relatively cheaper."
If such a project is unfeasible, Professor Cowley says ESA has vowed to launch the revamped Phoenix satellite on its own, meaning information on the border region will be obtained, but much of the vital space science promised by four satellites working in unison will be lost.
Ken Pounds, chief executive of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, said: "I think if ESA says yes to using Phoenix and three new satellites, then it will go ahead for launch in 1999 or 2000. If they just launch Phoenix, it will not be able to provide the unique feature of Cluster, a four-dimensional look at the boundary between the earth's magnetosphere and the solar winds."