Brussels, 15 Jan 2003
Europe's one billion euro mission to land a spacecraft on the Wirtanen comet has been abandoned, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced on 15 January.
The project was thrown into doubt following the explosion of an enhanced Ariane 5 rocket soon after its launch from the ESA spaceport in Kourou in French Guyana in December 2002.
The Rosetta satellite was due to launch from Kourou in January onboard a similar class of craft, but after lengthy discussions, a review board felt that despite a full investigation into the incident, too many unanswered questions remained to risk the 10 years of work that have already gone into the project.
ESA spokesperson Franco Bonacina described to CORDIS News the mixed feelings of the project scientists following the decision: 'There is obviously a degree of sadness, but they fully understand the reasons for the delay and realise that it is not the end of the world. Our scientists have their minds in space but their feet firmly on the ground,' he said.
Due to the complexity of manoeuvres required to catch Comet Wirtanen, involving slingshot passes round the Earth and Mars, the next opportunity to rendezvous with it after 31 January will not present itself for 170 years.
The Rosetta team will instead have to select another comet as a target for the ESA satellite. As Mr Bonacina explained: 'The search for a new target begins today. There will be different parameters to consider, but we hope to apply the same science and minimise the cost.'
The final decision on a new target rests with the ESA governing bodies and the scientific policy committee. A decision on objectives and timeframes for a new mission are expected following the committee's next meeting in February.
It is understood that a number of potential candidates have already been identified, but given that the estimated flight time to Wirtanen was 11 years, the mission cancellation seems set to ensure that scientists will have an even longer wait before they can finally begin a close inspection of the surface of a comet.
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