John Matson is an associate editor at Scientific American focusing on space, physics and mathematics. Follow on Twitter
Two researchers, one a physicist working on the Large Hadron Collider in Europe and the other a space scientist with leading roles on several lunar satellite missions, have run afoul of the authorities this month for alleged terrorist links and attempted spying, respectively.
On October 8, an LHC physicist—since identified by news outlets as Adlène Hicheur—was arrested in France and later preliminarily charged with terrorism offenses "after investigators said that he offered to work with the North African branch of al-Qaeda," according to the Times of London. CERN, the European lab for particle physics that operates the giant particle collider, was quick to note that the suspect is not an employee of CERN but of one of the lab’s user institutes and that the LHC, despite its billing as the world’s most powerful atom smasher, is not the kind of device that could be used for terrorism.
In an interview with Nature News on October 13, Hicheur’s brother Halim maintained his sibling’s innocence, saying that the arrest probably stemmed from the physicist’s purchase of a plot of land in Algeria, the family’s ancestral homeland.
More recently, another scientist working on high-profile projects was arrested, this one under allegations of attempted espionage. On Monday the Department of Justice announced that space scientist Stewart Nozette had been apprehended and charged with attempting to sell classified U.S. defense information to an undercover FBI employee posing as an Israeli intelligence officer.
According to a statement from the Justice Department, Nozette received $11,000 in two cash drops in exchange for secret information, some of which "concerned U.S. satellites, early warning systems, means of defense or retaliation against large-scale attack, communications intelligence information, and major elements of defense strategy."
Nozette has a distinguished résumé, having worked on NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, the joint Clementine mission led by the military and NASA in the 1990s, and the Indian Chandrayaan 1 spacecraft. (On Tuesday a Talking Points Memo blogger outlined circumstantial evidence suggesting that Nozette may have already passed information to India.) Clementine, a lunar orbiter, took radar readings of the moon’s poles that indicated possible stores of water ice there—a finding reported in Science in 1996 with Nozette as the lead author.
The Clementine radar detection set off a series of follow-up observations that have yet to settle the issue, most recently the controlled double impact of NASA’s Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) earlier this month. Data have yet to be fully analyzed from the plume ejected by the LCROSS crashes into a shadowed crater near the moon’s south pole.
Photo of Nozette: NASA