The gang ripped printed circuit boards worth an estimated £800,000 from two Sun Microsystems supercomputers at Durham university. Their haul included boards from a state-of-the-art machine used to model the origins of the universe.
The raid is the latest in a series to target Sun Microsystems equipment in universities and businesses in the UK over the past two years. Police are investigating possible links between the thefts at Durham and thefts of Sun equipment from other universities.
The university voiced fears this week that publicity surrounding the computers, particularly the Cosmology Machine, which was turned on by trade minister Patricia Hewitt at a ceremony last year, made it a ready target.
"For the university, and for Sun itself, the machines were something to be proud of. We did not hide the fact that we had acquired these machines to do world class work," said university spokesman Keith Seacroft.
Two men broke into the university's Institute for Computational Cosmology on 23 December, setting off burglar alarms. Although guards arrived on the scene within minutes, the men had time to remove eight circuit boards, worth an estimated £200,000 each.
They dropped a bag containing four boards as they fled, but escaped with the other four in a stolen Mercedes, later found abandoned. Police said the London registered car had been fitted with false number plates. Two men attempted another raid the following morning but ran off after being spotted by guards.
Detective inspector Andy Reddick of Durham Police urged universities to make sure that they have round-the-clock security for computer systems. "Make sure there is 24-hour security, whether [universities] go to security companies or install alarms. Anyone who has these systems needs to be aware of the threat," he said.