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2014 in review

“If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants.”Isaac Newton.

Professor Ian Wright of the Open University with a model of the Philae lander
(Credit: Open University)

A momentous event took place in November 2014, when a team of European scientists and engineers succeeded in performing the first controlled ‘touch down’ on a comet. At the time, comet 67P was 300 million miles away, and not visible from Earth. Signals to and from the Rosetta spacecraft were subject to a 25 minute delay. Despite the delay, and the lack of visibility, the Philae lander touched down exactly where intended, on a surface we knew very little about. Although it then bounced into shadow, the instruments on-board worked as intended, and sent their data home to Earth. Data from Philae’s short-lived experiments (including the Ptolemy instrument designed and built by RAL Space and the Open University) will keep scientists busy for years, and greatly expand our understanding of our solar system.

Technicians working on the Huygens probe, prior to launch
(Credit: ESA)

Short though Philae’s working life was, the Rosetta mission as a whole demonstrates the long-term nature of science. Rosetta was launched 10 years ago, forced to take the scenic route to rendezvous with the chosen comet. The historic success we have just witnessed was achieved using ten-year-old technology.

Ten years ago, when Rosetta was beginning its long journey, Cassini-Huygens was arriving at its destination. Cassini was the first spacecraft to enter Saturn’s orbit, and its original four year mission has been extended twice. Among the many scientific discoveries that Cassini has helped us make is that Saturn’s moon Enceladus is one of the places in the solar system most likely to be home to microbial life. ESA’s Huygens probe (another collaboration between RAL Space and the Open University) became the first spacecraft to land in the outer solar system when it touched down on Titan. The Cassini-Huygens mission has enabled us to study the Saturn system in unprecedented detail, and continues until the middle of 2017.

ISIS Production of Neutrons
(Credit: STFC)

Back here on Earth, we’ve celebrated several important anniversaries this year that remind us that science is a long-term, ongoing process. It has benefitted greatly from the use of ‘big science’ facilities such as the ISIS Neutron and Muon source, where beams of neutrons have been allowing scientists to study materials at the atomic level for thirty years. ISIS has become one of the UK’s major scientific achievements; as the world’s leading pulsed neutron and muon source, ISIS has changed the way the world views neutron scattering. One recent discovery to come out of the facility is a ‘chemical sponge’ that could drastically reduce our carbon footprints. You can read more about the ways in which particle accelerators such as ISIS contribute to everyday life in our new Accelerators brochure.

Today’s data-intensive science relies on continual developments in computing, and 2014 saw the 50th anniversary of supercomputing at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. In 1964, the Atlas Computer Laboratory on what is now the Rutherford site was the world’s first purpose-built computing building, and home to the Ferranti Atlas 1. Designed and built in Britain, Atlas was at the time the largest and most powerful general-purpose supercomputer in the world. It occupied a building the size of a large detached house and doubled the computation power of the UK academic sector, yet had only a fraction of the power and memory of a modern mobile phone. The original Atlas console was recovered from storage, restored with the help of CLF apprentices, and put on display for the anniversary celebrations. Fifty years into the future, will it be commonplace to land on a comet?

Professor Bob Hopgood, Dik Leatherdale, Brian Davies and Dr Victoria Marshall with the refurbished Atlas console.
(Credit: STFC)

Our Big Data brochure explores some of the many ways in which computing technology and data-intensive science are helping us to solve some of the challenges of modern life. In his Autumn Statement, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced a £113 million investment in the Hartree Centre at Daresbury, which will allow the development of new approaches to data-centric cognitive computing and will deliver computing capability to the international Square Kilometre Array HQ at Jodrell Bank, and to national projects including the Turing Centre in London, and the new national materials institute in Manchester.

CERN turned 60 this year, celebrating a diamond anniversary of peaceful scientific cooperation. The largest laboratory in the world is home to the most powerful particle accelerator ever built – the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The LHC has been quiet this year, but the maintenance and upgrade programme (Long Shutdown 1) is drawing to a close, and we can expect more exciting particle physics news next year.

Maintenance and upgrade work at the LHC
(Credit: CERN)

The ongoing march of science is a truly human endeavour, bigger than any one person, mission, experiment or facility. It involves mind-boggling numbers, incomprehensible horizons, unknown unknowns and an ever-increasing number of scientists and engineers who are truly standing on the shoulders of giants. And yet we can enjoy the smaller moments, quieter achievements, first steps and hard won careers of unsung, everyday, scientific heroes.

The efforts of engineers from RAL Space to build robots that are capable of exploring Mars and other places in our solar system led to members of the general public taking the helm and using them to explore the Tate Britain museum at night. Civil engineers blew the top off a mountain in Chile, to create a flat plateau on which to build the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), which will be the largest telescope of its kind ever built. MeerKAT, the first of 64 antennas that will make up the South African section of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), was officially launched in March 2014. When completed, the SKA will enable astronomers to survey the entire sky in unprecedented detail, and thousands of times faster than any system currently in existence.

An After Dark project robot with Jacob Epstein's The Visitation (1926) at Tate Britain.
(Credit: Alexey Moskvin/Tate Britain/PA)

STFC spin-out Cobalt Light Systems won the MacRobert award, a major engineering prize, this year for their scanning technology that can identify liquids sealed inside non-metallic containers. We were pleased to congratulate a number of scientists with whom we have strong links, when they were honoured in the 2014 awards from the Institute of Physics, and the British astronomers who contributed to work that won the prestigious Shaw Prize in Astronomy.

The Cobalt Light Systems team receive the MacRobert Prize Medal
(Credit: Rob Falconer/Royal Academy of Engineering)

If you’re interested in a career in science, then have a look at how you can work with us – we offer opportunities for the experienced and newly qualified, internships, studentships and vacation placements and even work experience. Come and help us make the next big breakthrough. 2014 has been an amazing year for science, and we’re looking forward to seeing what new discoveries 2015 will bring – it’s going to be another ground-breaking year!

Science and Technology Facilities Council Switchboard: 01793 442000