UK budget crunch knocks out Big Bang telescopes

Council scraps Clover project to hunt for Universe's polarization.

Cosmic microwave background radiation as seen from Earth — emissions from our Galaxy in red. Credit: NASA/WMAP SCIENCE TEAM

A telescope capable of finding evidence for gravitational waves from the aftermath of the Big Bang is destined to remain in pieces across four UK universities, after the project was cancelled late last month. Astronomers say the cancellation reflects the dire budget circumstances of UK physics and astronomy.

The Clover project, jointly run by astrophysicists at the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester, and Cardiff University, is designed to detect photons in the cosmic microwave background polarized in a particular way, known as B-mode polarization.

B-mode polarization has not been detected before, but if found would provide details supporting inflation theory, which describes how the Universe grew suddenly in size shortly after the Big Bang. "Inflation is still the best theory [for what followed the Big Bang], but we have almost no idea what the physics of the process is," says Mike Jones from the University of Oxford, an instrument scientist on Clover.

To get Clover in place to make these measurements in Chile's Atacama Desert would require £2.76 million (US$4.1 million) on top of the original £4.78 million grant approved in 2004, and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) says it has no more money to give. On 24 March, the STFC cancelled the project.

"We're somewhat in a state of shock about the whole thing," says Jones. The only way to keep the project going would be if an outside partner comes on board, an outcome the project is currently seeking. "We would be selling a share in the project for a bargain price," says Jones.

In December 2007, the STFC announced an overall £80 million budget shortfall. "We know that the STFC has big financial problems at the moment," says Jones. "This isn't going to save their financial situation."

More than a dozen other projects are in the works worldwide that could pick up some of the same research. But Clover's cancellation is a loss for the field of B-mode studies, says Al Kogut, principal investigator for a planned balloon-borne experiment also looking for B-modes, from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "It was a well designed experiment filling an important niche among the various techniques being used to detect the 'echo' of primordial gravity waves," he says. In particular, Clover would have been able to sort out the very weak gravitational wave signal from cosmic shear, one of the many competing signals that need to be sifted through.

"We're talking about a Nobel prize experiment if it had worked," says Peter Coles, a theoretical astrophysicist at Cardiff University. "The STFC should be prioritizing things that could revolutionize a field." Alan Heavens, an astrophysicist at the University of Edinburgh, agrees: "This sort of project is one that the United Kingdom should be concentrating on." Heavens was on Clover's oversight committee but not involved in the decision.

The STFC agrees that Clover's science goals are "first rate", but the proper processes have been followed, says Julia Maddock, STFC spokeswoman. In February 2007, the project underwent a review and cut three instruments to two to save money.

Still, the cost overruns proved too much; they came in part from an accounting change in how members' time was budgeted for, and in part because the location was switched to Chile from the South Pole, where French and Italian collaborators would have helped pay for some of the project, before problems with the site delayed it. "As custodians of public funding, we can't give a blank cheque to a project and commit to do it at any cost," says Maddock.

Jones is concerned that a funding council would cancel a project at such an advanced stage; the Clover telescope, detectors and receptors are all built and ready to be moved to Chile. "Implications for projects in the future are rather serious," he says.

"The bottom line is that the STFC is broke," says Coles. And he predicts gloomy days ahead for other UK physicists. "I think there are going to be more high-profile closures soon."

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Sanderson, K. UK budget crunch knocks out Big Bang telescopes. Nature (2009).

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