Over a thousand scientists toil away at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, and in August there is a chance to go inside and see what they do.

The facility is at Harwell, just outside Didcot, which is also home to the UK’s nuclear fusion research facility at Culham and the Diamond Light Source — both of which are also worth visiting on their open days.

The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) is a short bus ride from Didcot railway station.

Booking is now open and is essential. To book, send an email to visitral@stfc.ac.uk with the following information:

  • Names of all people attending
  • Ages of all visitors who are under 16 years of age
  • If there is a specific facility you want to see.
  • If you have any special requirements (for access etc). If you have a pacemaker, metallic implants, are pregnant or breast-feeding) also let them know.

Tours are free.

The annual open day takes in most of the facilities on their campus, including:


A pulsed neutron and muon source that produces beams of neutrons and muons that allow scientists to study materials at the atomic level using a suite of
instruments, often described as ‘super-microscopes’.

From the original vision over 30 years ago, ISIS has become one of the UK’s major scientific achievements.

ISIS Source

The beam for the whole ISIS facility begins in a tiny ion source. This produces H- ions, which are turned into protons that are accelerated and used to generate neutrons. A community of more than 2000 scientists use the neutrons to research subjects ranging from aircraft wings to babies’ lungs.

Space Testing Facilities

To ensure instruments survive both a rocket launch and the extreme conditions of space they need to be thoroughly tested on the ground before they start their long journey to space. See how they keep things clean, assemble them and test them in some of the UK’s leading space test facilities.

Robot testing

The Autonomous Systems Group at RAL Space develops terrestrial test equipment which is used to test instrumentation and software for space. The group’s eleven robots are used not only to test technologies for exploring the Moon and Mars, but also to research a large number of potential applications here on Earth.

Vulcan Control Room

Vulcan is a unique Petawatt (10 15 Watts) laser which delivers a focused beam – which for 1 picosecond is 10,000 times more powerful than the National Grid – to support a wide-ranging programme in fundamental physics and advanced applications.

Vulcan Target Area

When the Vulcan laser fires a laser pulse, the target in the interaction chamber experiences a light intensity that is similar to taking all of the sunlight shining on the Earth and focussing it onto a pin head. The physics of what happens during this extreme interaction is explored by capturing the radiation that comes flying off at, or near to, the speed of light.


Astra is a high power, ultra-short pulse, high repetition-rate laser. It uses titanium-doped sapphire (TiS), and works at 800 nm in the near infra-red, just outside the region visible to the human eye. The pulses from Astra are so short that they are like sheets of light energy thinner than a human hair, which can be focused to a spot a few thousandths of a millimetre across.

Target Fabrication Group

The Target Fabrication Group works with the scientists using the Central Laser
Facility to design and modify the targets of each particular experiment.


The Cryogenics Group at RAL work with a wide variety of instrumentation at incredibly low temperatures. They’re involved in a huge diversity of projects – from designing components of the ATLAS detector at CERN, to manufacturing cryostats for the new Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA).


The Satellite Applications Catapult Delivery Team, or Catapult, is one of seven technology and innovation centres established in the country. It is funded by the Technology Strategy Board, and works closely with RAL Space to ‘catapult’ the growth and development of satellite space technology.


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  1. Gordon Ross says:

    A Hydrogen ion *IS* a proton.

    There is a good description of the ISIS source at Wikipedia.

  2. Tim Perry says:

    Ian, I’m surprised you didn’t mention this location’s link with Doctor Who! A lot of the location filming for the Tom Baker-era story ‘The Android Invasion’ was done here.

    • ianvisits says:

      I was going to mention its link to Blake 7, because not everything has to be about Dr Who.

  3. George Ryall says:

    Don’t forget the computing departments link to the Alien film franchise either.

  4. Andrew says:

    An H+ ion is a proton (assuming you don’t start with deuterium or tritium, that is). An H- ion is a proton with two electrons.

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