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Michael Banks: October 2008 Archives

By Michael Banks

Ever since the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) announced a £80m shortfall in its budget late last year — to the wide condemnation of physicists in the UK — here at Physics World we have been trying to cover every twist and turn.

In September — after an STFC programmatic review spelling out which programmes would be funded — we ran opinion pieces in the magazine about the debacle from Brian Foster, European director of the global design effort for the International Linear Collider (ILC), as well as Keith Mason, chief executive of the STFC itself.

We have known for a few months now which facilities would be funded by the STFC in full — and which, like the Gemini telescopes and the ILC, would see the UK’s involvement cut back. What was not known, though, was how much research grants would be slashed.

The STFC earlier in the year issued a warning that up to 25% of grants could be cancelled over the next three years and those that have been issued could even be recalled as a result of the budget deficit. As Foster underlined in his opinion piece: “never before have grants that have been already issued been recalled and cut.”

However, the STFC has now pulled a rabbit out of the hat and come up with £9m over the next two years to plough into the research grants programme. The extra cash will reduce the original shortfall in grants funding by a half. A spokesperson for the STFC told me the new money has come from within the budget allocation and not from any external source. “[It originated from] how we manage our risks and our exposure to foreign currency fluctuations,” the spokesperson added.

This seems surprising as exposure to currency fluctuations was one of the main reasons given by the STFC management for its woes. However, for the time being physicists seem happy. “The flexibility that STFC have employed in addressing the reduction in grants is very welcome,” says particle physicist Mark Lancaster from University College London, who has been campaigning against the STFC cuts.

The new money will be available for the next grants round, but the STFC do not yet know how it will be distributed across sub-disciplines.

By Michael Banks

Since the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded this week to three Japanese-born researchers, it seems like Japan has gone particle-physics crazy, or at least the Japanese government has.

So much so that Japan now wants to host the next big experiment in particle physics — the International Linear Collider (ILC). The ILC is the successor to the $8bn proton smasher the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva that switched on, and then off, following a magnet failure almost a month ago.

According to a design study unveiled in early 2007, the machine is estimated to cost $8bn with the host country expected to pay $1.8bn - around 22% of the total cost — to dig the 40 km tunnel and supply electricity and water. When operational, the ILC will smash together electrons and its anti-particle twin, positrons, as they are accelerated to near the speed of light.

After the Nobel Prize was announced on Tuesday, a Japanese government spokesman said they will use the prize as “a tailwind” to advance its involvement with physics research. This comes as good news to particle physicists who saw the US cut its funding for the ILC last year by 75% to $15m, and with the UK now only carrying out basic research into the project following a funding crisis at one of its main research councils.

Indeed, the Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel (P5) — set up by the US Department of Energy last year to plan the next decade in high-energy physics — published a report in June saying the US should have “a significant role in the ILC wherever it is built”, but stopped short of saying that it should be constructed in the US.

“If the Japanese do make such a strong bid, I think it is highly unlikely to be opposed by the US, although it might catalyse other interest, potentially China or Russia,” says particle physicist Brian Foster from Oxford University. “However, I think the Japanese would be in a very strong position and, after ITER, in some sense they are ‘owed’ the next major international project.”

So maybe the time is right for
Japan to stake its claim.

Artist’s impression of the GIOVE-A probe, which was launched three years ago. (Courtesy: ESA).

By Michael Banks

This morning, in the huge exhibition hall at this year’s International Astronautical Congress, I caught up with Martin Sweeting, chief executive of Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) and chairman of the local organizing committee for this year’s event.

The company that he founded in 1985 at Surrey University focuses on building and operating “micro” satellites, which are around 100 kg in mass. Sweeting recalled how, back in the 1980s, people laughed at the idea of having smaller satellites. At the time, satellites were getting ever bigger, with larger scientific payloads on board. But the sceptics soon turned silent: the market for small commercial satellites has seen year-on-year growth, with SSTL itself having a market turnover of £21m in 2006.

In his talk yesterday evening at the congress, Sweeting compared the traditional large satellites as “dinosaurs” having themselves evolved from smaller satellites. Indeed, Sputnik - the world’s first artificial satellite - was the size of a beach ball.

I asked Sweeting if the comparison was apt, given that large satellites are still needed for landers to the Moon and Mars as well as for possible manned missions.

Fly me to the Moon

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Michael Griffin

By Michael Banks

When Physics World talked to NASA boss Michael Griffin in July - on the occasion of NASA’s 50th birthday — he noted that the agency hoped to have manned missions to the Moon by 2020 and Mars by 2050. Griffin reiterated that view in a session yesterday at the International Astronautical Congress in Glasgow with heads of agency and industry space leaders. However, he also warned about putting too much priority on a potential Mars mission. “We have had only 27 Earth days on the Moon,” said Griffin, referring to the previous six Apollo manned lunar missions. “But our dependents will think we are idiots; that we don’t know enough about the Moon, if we don’t revisit it.”

For anyone who thinks a mission to Mars would be the space equivalent of a walk in the park, Griffin put the potential mission in context. “Mars is an interesting place for human beings,” he said, “but we have to show that astronauts can survive the mission time by first putting them for seven months on the International Space Station (ISS) then 9-12 months on the moon followed by another 7 months on the ISS.