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Ready to roll. An artist's impression of what the European Spallation Source will look like.

Ready to roll. An artist's impression of what the European Spallation Source will look like.

ESS/Henning Larsen Architects

U.K. to Shower Money on Three Big Science Projects

The U.K. government announced nearly £300 million ($500 million) of new investment in large-scale science projects yesterday. The beneficiaries will be a new European neutron source soon to be built in Sweden, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope, and an exoplanet-hunting mission by the European Space Agency (ESA).

U.K. scientists had thought that their days of participation in large-scale projects were numbered when the current government, in its first spending review in 2010, slashed funds for capital spending in science projects by more than 50%. But since then the government has made a number of one-off spending commitments for research that now amounts to several billion pounds.

The largest part of the latest slice goes to the €1.8 billion European Spallation Source (ESS) in Lund, Sweden, which will produce neutron beams that are an extremely sensitive probe of materials, measuring how atoms are arranged and how they interact. Some neutron sources use a nuclear reactor to produce the beams, but ESS uses a proton beam colliding with a metallic target, a process known as spallation. ESS will be 30 times brighter than today’s top sources.

The United Kingdom had previously not committed to participation in ESS, although in January ESS began collaborating with ISIS, the current most powerful European spallation source, at the Harwell laboratory near Oxford. "The U.K. contribution to ESS is very important both financially and intellectually," says Jim Yeck, ESS director-general and CEO. "Access to ISIS combined with the experience building and operating a spallation neutron source that the U.K. team brings to ESS adds greatly to the success of the project."

The government has also decided to back SKA, the world’s biggest astronomy project, with £119 million. SKA will build thousands of radio dishes and other antennas all across southern Africa and at a second site in Australia to tackle a wide range of astronomical questions, from the nature of black holes and galaxy evolution to dark energy, cosmic magnetism, and the birth of the first stars. The U.K. contribution constitutes a significant portion of the €650 million first phase of construction, which will begin in 2018. “This is a really exciting announcement for the SKA and a solid proof that the project is now really underway. With such a major investment secured there is no stopping it,” says SKA Director General Philip Diamond in a statement.

Finally, the United Kingdom is staking a claim to building some of the instruments for PLATO, a mission to be launched by ESA in 2024 that will look for habitable planets around other stars. The country's £25 million contribution will allow 11 U.K. institutions to participate. PLATO will have 34 small telescopes and cameras to enable it to scan for planets around a million stars. “PLATO is the logical next step in our search for extrasolar planets. It will revolutionize our knowledge of rocky planets and will enable the first directed search for life around sunlike stars in the next decade,” says Don Pollacco of the University of Warwick, who will lead the U.K. effort.