Road Map to beyond the stars

September 25, 1998

Looking at its long-term horizons, the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council is making sure that industry, scientists and government are aware of its efforts to get a big bang for its bucks. Martin Ince reports

In particle physics and astronomy, the five-year plans favoured by the former Soviet Union would never do - they are just too short-term. At the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, projects in the planning cycle include satellites such as the successor to the Hubble telescope, which is a decade away from launch; and the Cassini mission to Saturn, which is in space and due to arrive in 2004, 20 years after planning began. There is also the replacement for the Cluster satellites, which blew up on launch in 1996: if a new mission gets into space it will not be until about 2003.

Major projects in the other areas of PPARC science, ground-based astronomy and particle physics, can be similarly long: the large hadron collider, a new particle physics machine under construction in Switzerland, has a lead time of nearly 20 years; a big telescope can take more than ten.

According to PPARC's Andrew le Masurier, these big projects need to be reconciled with each other and with the annual budgets inherent in a publicly funded organisation. PPARC has just set up a science board, of which Dr le Masurier is secretary, to achieve this balance and to ensure that the areas of science it represents each get a fair shot. (The particle physicists have long been suspected of plotting for funds more effectively than the astronomers.) Dr le Masurier says: "The whole PPARC council has to consider the science programme we are putting forward, but it also has to deal with other issues such as technology, the public understanding of science and the future of studentships. It is not set up to look at science in detail."

In addition, virtually all of the big projects are international: the space projects mostly via the European Space Agency (and a few links to space projects in Japan and elsewhere) and particle physics via Cern, the Geneva-based European centre for the subject. This creates a risk that PPARC's decisions will be taken out of its hands. But clarity about its long-term science objectives (embodied in a document called the Road Map, whose second annual edition will appear in November) increases the United Kingdom's influence on international projects.

The PPARC plan contains many wonders. Among them are the large optical array, a ground-based telescope that ought to deliver images with 100 times the angular resolution Hubble gets from space; and the large millimetre-wave array, which would allow millimetre-wavelength radiation to be observed with enough accuracy to shed light on issues such as star formation and galactic evolution.

Ian Corbett, PPARC's director of science, points out that the large millimetre-wave array will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. It is bound to involve collaborators from Europe, the United States and elsewhere. It will involve 64 antennae whose signals are collected to yield the final image, which in turn means building prototypes and dealing with industrial partners.

Dr Corbett adds that the government's comprehensive spending review "opens up opportunities" for the science that PPARC supports. PPARC will encourage its community to bid for money from the joint infrastructure fund backed by the government and the Wellcome Trust. In the longer term, Dr le Masurier expects that the rise in funding implied by the CSR could lift the UK's participation in some projects from, say, 5 per cent to 10 per cent and give it more influence on the final shape.

But even with extra money, there will continue to be more proposals for good science from the UK's astronomers and particle physicists than PPARC can fund. Dr Corbett says that after scientific excellence, other criteria that are applied include whether a significant UK research community of world standing backs a particular topic. For example, PPARC is considering joining in a Mercury Orbiter space mission, only the second to Mercury. But the UK community of Mercury experts is minute. By contrast, Dr Corbett says says, the large millimetre-wave array "allows almost all the big problems in modern astronomy to be addressed" and that makes it enticing to a much broader community. Because of this, it is the second highest priority for UK ground-based astronomy. The top priority is Gemini, two big optical telescopes in Chile and Hawaii whose construction by an international consortium including the UK is well advanced.

Strong forward planning is probably even more necessary in PPARC's astronomy work than in its particle physics because of the great number of projects. In the Road Map, the list of science priorities for particle physics contains just four questions, albeit big ones: the origin of mass, the reason for different families of elementary particles, the nature of dark matter in the universe and the imbalance between the matter we see around us and the antimatter that ought to exist alongside it.

To tackle these questions the particle physicists propose just five experiments, two of which are already in the budget. These include the large hadron collider at Cern and a much more modest search for dark matter at a mine in Yorkshire. The LHC involves massive new experiments in Cern tunnels under Switzerland and France. If it gets started as planned in 2005 or 2006, 25 years will have elapsed since it began to be discussed in 1982.

The next decision in particle physics is whether to join Alice, an experiment at Cern on the forces between atomic particles. A decision is due early in 1999. The particle physicists point out that this project will also illuminate problems of interest to astronomers, such as the nature of matter in supernovae.

By contrast, the UK astronomy community involves everyone from experts on the Earth's magnetic field to the planets and small objects of the solar system and on out to stars, galaxies and the origin of the universe. This means more projects and priorities and potentially less focus, and makes a document such as the Road Map especially valuable.

Apart from the LMA, where an international decision to proceed may be made in mid-1999, other significant ground-based proposals include Auger, a cosmic ray detector, the large optical array (possibly two years away from a decision), a device called Spear to study the Earth's magnetic and particle fields, and two schemes for upgrading existing telescopes. One, in which BT is involved, would add massive fibre-optic links to an existing UK network of radio telescopes called Merlin, allowing them to produce more detailed maps of the radio sky. The other would allow the UK infrared telescope on Hawaii to produce more detailed sky surveys by making use of new detector technology. In the possible future there are telescopes with "adaptive optics" to remove the effects of atmospheric turbulence.

UK ground-based optical astronomy will draw on the skills of PPARC's new astronomy technology centre in Edinburgh, which has emerged as the UK base for astronomical equipment. This will match the support that particle physics and space-based astronomy get from the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire. Among space projects on the map are missions to Mars and Mercury, and space telescopes including the new generation space telescope, Hubble's planned successor.

Dr le Masurier says the Road Map is meant to appeal to audiences beyond PPARC's scientists. It also allows the council's political masters at the Department of Trade and Industry to see that PPARC, with the least applied mission of any research council, is doing valuable long-term work.

This month PPARC stretches to reach a wider audience by making it clear to industry that these projects are substantial high-technology development efforts that can mean money for those involved commercially. Guy Rickett, until last week head of industrial liaison at PPARC, points out that PPARC has never had a detailed plan for telling industry what it wanted - or what PPARC developments might be commercialised - until its long-term technology plan appeared.

He says: "We now have very little money for science groups to use for speculative development of new equipment, but we have to have a mechanism for ensuring that we can be in the game when new proposals come along. We are issuing this document as a signpost to the kinds of detectors, instruments and other equipment we anticipate needing. Particle physicists tend to be focused on the next project, and we want to be able to think beyond that, as the astronomers already do."

There are other advantages to the technology plan, some of them internal. It turns out that there is far more overlap between detecting particles in physics and detecting X-rays in astronomy than either community had appreciated. The plan will allow the DTI to better understand PPARC, as well as possible industrial partners, such as BT in the case of the radio astronomers. As Dr Rickett says: "We carry out big projects and we need high-technology industry to help us deliver them. This document is not a shopping list for this year - it is a look at things we anticipate needing in a few years. We are thinking about (them) now so that we will be ready come the day."

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