British scientists submitted bold plans to land a spacecraft on Mercury that were considered a “step too far” by the European Space Agency (ESA) and scrapped.
Top planetary scientist Professor John Zarnecki, from the Open University, said his team was “kicked off” the BepiColombo mission early in the planning phase in 2003.
But he harboured no ill-feelings and understood why ESA took the decision.
Speaking at the European space port at Kourou, French Guiana, before the launch of the British-built spacecraft that will deliver two orbiters to Mercury in 2025, Prof Zarnecki said: “It could have been different because originally BepiColombo had a surface lander.
“You have to have orbiters to map and study planets but I’m a very simple scientist. I want to touch the surface. I want to stick my finger into it with instruments.
“I had a PhD student whose life collapsed when the lander was removed. Of course I am disappointed, but I’m a glass half-full, rather than a glass half-empty person.
“It’s always much easier at the beginning of a project. There’s this conspiracy of optimism. Then you do the technical studies and you understand the realities.
“It was considered technically terribly difficult, a step too far, and cancelled.”
Prof Zarnecki was the brains behind Huygens, the ESA lander carried by Nasa’s Cassini probe that spectacularly touched down on Saturn’s moon Titan in 2005.
He added: “Mercury is neglected but it’s important because it’s an end point in our family of planets.
“When we return to Mercury we’ll have to have a lander, and maybe even a rover.”