Big Bang satellite to be switched off

THE satellite that last year gave the world one of its greatest scientific discoveries will be switched off in January because the United States cannot afford the bill.

When the satellite detected the afterglow of the Big Bang - which gave birth to the Universe about 15 billion years ago - Stephen Hawking, the Cambridge physicist, called it 'the scientific discovery of the century, if not of all time'.

British scientists have now joined forces with researchers on the cosmic background explorer (Cobe) satellite to continue the work with a second satellite which they hope will be launched by the European Space Agency in 1999.

The American space agency, Nasa, has added Cobe to a growing list of projects that have fallen victim to the US government's budget cuts. The US has already decided to stop funding a project aimed at searching for signs of intelligent life in space.

George Smoot, a principal investigator on the Cobe project, said in London yesterday that he was officially told last month that the Cobe research would be cut. 'The satellite will probably be turned off at the end of January and that's for lack of money. We've known for a while that there are money pressures in the US, and it costs about dollars 500,000 ( pounds 338,000) a year to run Cobe.'

Dr Smoot said scientists from the universities of Manchester, Oxford and Cambridge had formulated a collaborative research proposal for a second satellite to map the 'wrinkles in time' - the radiation afterglow caused by the Big Bang.

He said the Cobe satellite, which was the first instrument to detect the wrinkles, 'found the continents on the map and now we want to find out where the mountains are. We approached the Europeans because you go where the opportunities are.'

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