Cosmic rays are particles from outer space that continually bombard the Earth. They interact with particles in the Earth's atmosphere, creating an "air shower" of other particles that are eventually detected on the ground. The nature and origin of cosmic rays with energies below 1015 electron-volts (eV) are well understood, but little is known about cosmic rays with much higher energies.

HiSPARC involves the design and development of low-cost cosmic-ray detectors that will be built by schoolchildren, and then linked to other detectors throughout the Netherlands and the rest of Europe. The data collected by the detectors will be analysed by the students themselves with the help of university physicists and the results will be published. The project's leader, Bob van Eijk of the National Institute for Nuclear Physics and High Energy Physics (NIKHEF) in Amsterdam, hopes that exposing youngsters to hands-on experiments that yield real results will encourage more of them to become interested in science.

"The HiSPARC team has shown us that it is serious and determined," said Jean Audouze, co-president of the jury for the prize, "and we are convinced that Altran's help will be employed to advantage in this project." Van Eijk received the prize at UNESCO in Paris yesterday.