Turbulence in the gravy waves

So the Athena folk are somewhat miffed at being pipped by Juice. (This metaphor doesn’t seem quite right ? Ed.) But what about Horse Number Three ? Aren’t the NGO folk doing a Grand Petition ? Nope. It seems their tactic is a semi-formal complaint about inadeqacies in the process : an email letter direct to Gimenez. I am not sure how widely it has been circulated, but I understand it is stern stuff, bringing up issues of inappropriate revisions of costings and risk factors, and inadequately resolved conflicts of interest. Feel free to comment if you have clear knowledge, but please (a) do not leak things that are confidential, and (b) keep coments about process and not about individuals.

Its not really clear what competition means when a very small number of items is under consideration, and moreoever each item represents one community-segment, each of which ESA wishes to foster and support. Can you really leave it to peer review and some element of chance ? Nobody is both competent and neutral with respect to such huge basic choices. Why not accept that a well meaning Executive just has to  make a plan and stick with it, after taking advice ? To some extent what makes the current situation hard to swallow is the illusion of choice by peer review, rather than its weaknesses.

This wasn’t supposed to be a problem. Long standing ESA tradition is that M-class missions are genuine choices but Cornerstones / L-class missions are a slowly emerging plan. Everything gets done; its just a question of when. A year or two back, the plan was clear : we could do three halves, shared with NASA : LAPLACE, LISA, IXO. Then NASA pulled out of all of them. So now we have enough money for one and a half L-class missions instead of three. Athena, NGO, and Juice are all somewhat descoped compared to their parents. For example, ESA was going to do Ganymede and NASA would do Europa. But apparently Europa is the expensive bit because it has a horrible radiation field. So Juice will do a kind of quick day trip to Europa as I understand it, scooting back before the electronics gets fried. Anyhoo, costs are down but we still can’t do three.

We can do the usual ESA trick of slowing things down. Step round the board for a few more subscription rounds, passing GO and collecting 200 pounds each time. However, this gets you less than you think : because of standing army issues, the costs go up too. Plus, we can’t wait for ever. Its time for Cosmic Visions to finish and the next plan to emerge.

Net result : there will be an L2 competition, but no L3 competition. Things could get even tenser … NGO may seem the obvious choice to ESA because they have already invested in LISA Pathfinder, and its just a more radical advance. Thats why I think it has been really important to show that Athena serves a huge community.

15 Responses to Turbulence in the gravy waves

  1. Rob Ivison says:

    From what I saw as a member of AWG (a few years ago), the peer-review processes at ESA are not as strict as those elsewhere. For example, it was common practise for the most knowledgeable (often simultaneously the most conflicted) person on the AWG to make a first draft of any recommendation, and virtually unheard of for someone to leave the room. Initially this shocked me, but I soon came to realise that it was almost irrelevant because AWG (and to some extent the executive) is so heavily loaded with supporters of traditional space astronomy missions, with X-ray observatories front and foremost. I’ll leave you to decide the implications for Athena.

    Have things changed, Mark? (Half expecting an out-of-character “no comment”).

  2. telescoper says:

    Reblogged this on In the Dark and commented:
    Interesting stuff over at the e-astronomer relating to ESA’s handling of the process of selecting its next L-class mission. The plot thickens.

  3. Omar says:

    When did ‘gravy waves’ enter the lexicon? I read that and picture ripples on the surface of a hot roast dinner covered in Bisto. Or maybe I’m just hungry…

  4. Otto E. Rossler says:

    Juice is a very important mission, too (first extraterrestrial life!).
    X-ray astronomy is being punished presently, so I could believe, for Riccardo Giacconi’s inopportune finding of equi-distributed ultra-distant X-ray quasars (with photons dripping in at almost hourly intervals – orders of magnitude too redshifted to be measurable in the short time span allotted to the mission. This almost-proof of “no big bang” might still be resonating in the bones of policy-makers feeling opposed to any new results out of congruence with current majority opinion. (I could not say this without my recent paper in Complex Systems, http://www.complex-systems.com/pdf/20-2-3.pdf, serving as a partial excuse.)
    I hope this is not the deeper reason for Juice having been preferred. I would suggest to keep BOTH missions and ask CERN for help with the funding. (I have a very special connection to them which in spite of its sign may contribute to finding a constructive solution here, too.)

    • The LHC is up and running now. What do you think of this: I will buy your house for EUR 5000. You can then have a good time with the money since the world will end anyway. If you wouldn’t accept my offer, why not?

  5. andyxl says:

    Just got an email update from the Athena team. Apparently 1461 signatures were collected and the team have written to Gimenez. The SPC take a final decision May 2nd.

  6. Sarah says:

    Don’t know all the history, but isn’t the conflict of interest an inevitable consequence of moving to bigger and pricier facilities? Seeing it more with E-ELT as well.

  7. andyxl says:

    Sarah. Yes. Thats perzackly the point.

  8. Michael Merrifield says:

    Isn’t there a real risk that this petition could prove counterproductive? After all, it surely isn’t news to anyone within ESA that there is a largeish community of X-ray astronomers, and that they unsurprisingly strongly favour Athena as a mission, so there isn’t really any information in the petition. But now ESA are faced with the situation that, even if they did want to change the ultimate winner, it would set a very bad precedent for there to be even the perception that the change was made because of a vociferous community — I don’t think anyone is attracted to the idea of peer review based on who can shout loudest.

    • Andrew Liddle says:

      When footballers protest a penalty decision, they are almost never expecting that the referee might actually change their mind and award a goal kick. Rather, what they have in mind is the next decision …


      • Michael Merrifield says:

        And when rugby players protest a penalty, the penalty gets moved forwards ten yards. On the whole, I prefer the latter approach to refereeing!

        In this case, however, the penalty has not yet been awarded, and I think any kind of protest is more likely to harden views against the case simply because a body like ESA cannot be seen to be bowing to such pressure.

  9. andyxl says:

    The SPC has deliberated. Its JUICE. But Athena and NGO are jolly good too, and the next decison is 2013

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