Scientists in Wales want to keep Britain a leader in astronomical instrumentation. Iola Smith reports.
The secrets of the hidden universe are the target of Wales's newest and perhaps oddest factory: Cardiff University's Astronomy Instrumentation Research lab.
Scientists there will develop new instruments and equipment to help astronomers view the sky via electromagnetic waves with wavelengths between 0.3 of a millimetre and 3 millimetres. It is within this waveband, says Steve Eales of the laboratory, that questions about the origins of stars and galaxies will be answered.
"We will be able to watch galaxies, stars and planets forming," he says. "By analysing the results from our instruments we'll be able to tell many things about these stars and galaxies including their chemical composition, their temperature and the speed at which stars move." He hopes that some of the lenses needed for such analysis will also be developed in Cardiff.
British scientists are world leaders in submillimetre and millimetre astronomy. In the mid-1980s Britain built the world's first submillimetre telescope, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, on the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Almost two years ago, the world's first submillimetre camera, built at what is now the Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh, was installed on the telescope. It allowed images to be obtained 10,000 times faster than before.
By 2008, a new Pounds 250 million telescope operating in the millimetre/submillimetre waveband will be in operation. Called the Atacama Large Millimetre Array, it will have 64 antennae, each 12 metres in diameter. It will be located in Chile's Atacama desert, and will be funded by the United States, Britain, Germany, France and, possibly, Canada and Japan.
About Pounds 25 million of the investment will be British. Cardiff is keen to obtain a slice of that money to develop new instruments for the telescope. "If the UK is to maintain its current world-leading position and exploit its strengths to gain influence over the design and construction of the Large Millimetre Array, it must expand the number of groups working in millimetre/submillimetre instrumentation," Dr Eales says.
He also argues that increased breadth, obtained by developing more research groups, should occur alongside building up one university department to lead research in the field. "Although the UK has many individuals of international standing in the field, at present it does not have a university department with sufficient concentration of resources and expertise to spearhead the national research programme and to enable the UK to be represented effectively in international programmes."
Naturally, he is keen for Cardiff to assume the role. The university's position should be enhanced in the summer when Walter Gear, who led the team that built the first submillimetre camera, moves from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, part of University College London, to lead the Cardiff group.
The plan is to recruit five new academic staff within three years. Their work will complement expertise already present in the department in fields such as semiconductor optoelectronic devices and low-temperature instrumentation.
According to Peter Blood, head of the department of physics and astronomy, "These activities will contribute to the scientific skills needed for innovative research in instrumentation techniques as well as to the infrastructure needed to build up the technological base. It will be possible to build an instrumentation group that will participate on behalf of the UK in major international projects."