On the trail of Einstein's wave

March 22, 1996

British and German astronomers are joining forces to build a device to detect gravitational waves, one of the few predictions by Einstein that has so far eluded confirmation.

Gravity waves are generated by a number of exotic astronomical objects including exploding stars and rotating neutron stars. These pack more mass than the sun into a space no bigger than the Isle of Wight.

According to the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, which is stumping up a precious Pounds 1 million towards the Pounds 7 million project, the sensitivity of the detector will be comparable to noticing a fly stretch its legs on a planet around a star 100 light years away.

Detecting these waves though has proved extremely difficult, partly because they pass through all matter. The British team is led by researchers at Glasgow University and University of Wales. The detector, called GEO600, is to be based in Germany. As well as proving Einstein right (yet again) astronomers hope GEO600 will enable novel studies of the universe to be undertaken.

PPARC's go-ahead for the project is the first good news for British astronomers who have been hammered badly by the council's cash problems in recent years.

Two weeks ago, the council announced that it could no longer oversee a regime of "managed decline" in United Kingdom particle physics, astronomy and planetary science and would seek to cap its subscription to Cern, the particle physics laboratory in Geneva, at around the current level of Pounds 95 million.

Another astronomy project that could get the thumbs-up soon as a result of this policy shift away from Cern is the building of a very small array of radio telescopes to map irregularities in the cosmic microwave background radiation - the only direct evidence left of what hot matter in the universe was like about 300,000 years after the Big Bang.

The Pounds 3-million project, called VSA, is a joint collaboration between astronomers at Cavendish Laboratory and Jodrell Bank.

John Baldwin, head of the radio astronomy group at Cambridge University's Cavendish Laboratory says that the United Kingdom looks very much out of line with policy in other European countries, where astronomy is better funded. "They can't understand it really and look upon us as if we were mad", he said.

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