It was pronounced dead, but now it has sprung back to life: Venus Express, the European Space Agency's proposed mission to our sister planet. On 15 July, the agency announced that its Science Programme Committee (SPC) had agreed that industrial work on the mission, which was cancelled only 8 weeks ago, should start right away, to meet the scheduled launch date of November 2005. Venus Express would be the first flight to Venus since NASA's Magellan spacecraft completed its reconnaissance of the planet in 1994.
First proposed in 2001, Venus Express was cancelled last May by David Southwood, ESA's director of science (ScienceNOW, 31 May). According to Southwood, national space agencies of ESA's member states could not commit themselves firmly to the necessary schedule. But a subsequent reevaluation, demanded by the head of the ESA Council, now paints a more optimistic picture. After a closer look, the national and industrial partners in the project concluded 11 July that they can meet the extremely tight schedule after all.
Planetary scientist Fred Taylor of Oxford University, one of the science coordinators of Venus Express, says the ESA Council responded to a "massive wave of support" for the mission from scientists, politicians, and the general public. The scientific goals of the mission include studies of Venus's thick atmosphere and its mysterious circulation, of the planet's greenhouselike climate, and of its interaction with the solar wind.
However, the project still appears to have one foot in the grave: Italy still has to confirm its commitment to build (and pay for) a substantial part of the Venus Express payload. SPC member Giovanni Bignami, who is science director for the Italian Space Agency, says that the agency's president had promised to decide on Italy's participation by mid-July but has postponed this decision until mid-October. "Unfortunately, this has forced ESA and the SPC to start a new mission that still carries a big risk," says Bignami. He fears there is a serious chance that Italy, which is still weighing participation in a NASA mission to Mars in 2005, will decide not to take part in Venus Express after all.