The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) today expressed deep regret at the decision of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) to end support for two major astronomical telescopes. The decision, a consequence of ongoing real terms cuts to the UK science budget by the Government, will almost certainly see the Hawaii-based UK Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) cease operations in the autumn of 2013 and the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) do the same a year later, with the loss of around 40 jobs.
The Society however welcomed the decision to seek to continue UK involvement in the William Herschel Telescope (WHT), sited on the island of La Palma in the Canaries, which observes the sky in visible light. Without the WHT, UK astronomers would have been in the odd position of being unable to observe the northern hemisphere of the sky – in other words many of the stars and galaxies above our heads – at optical wavelengths. This access is also critical for instrument development and for observations that complement new radio observatories like the pan-European LOFAR array.
Professor David Southwood, President of the Royal Astronomical Society, commented: “The closure of these innovative facilities, telescopes that continue to deliver ground-breaking research, is a sad day for British astronomy. It will further reduce the capacity of UK astronomers to carry out world-leading science.
‘After consultation with the astronomical community, I am pleased that STFC has found a solution that will allow UK scientists to continue to use the Isaac Newton Group, an issue of concern for the RAS since 2007.
‘At the moment UK astronomers and space scientists are amongst the most productive in the world and are second only to the United States in the number of citations of our scientific papers. This and the quality of our facilities have made the UK an attractive destination for researchers from across the globe. Astronomy remains a core inspiration for bringing students into science and engineering, recognised as being of key importance for long term economic growth.
‘As we move to step up involvement in projects like the Square Kilometre Array and the European Extremely Large Telescope, the UK needs to remain a credible international partner with a decent research infrastructure. Reduction in access to astronomical observatories and in research funding more generally puts this at risk.”
LINK: STFC statement on island sites
STFC chief executive Professor John Womersley announced today the United Kingdom was confident of continuing astronomical research using telescopes on the Canary Islands, and that operations on two Hawaiian telescopes would be extended to complete planned science.
However, the Hawaiian telescopes would be either transferred to alternate operators or decommissioned once the existing science missions were completed.
Professor Womersley said STFC Council had on Tuesday considered the future of the two sites:
- The United Kingdom Infra-Red Telescope (UKIRT) and James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT), both on Mauna Kea on the main island of Hawaii, and the associated Joint Astronomy Centre (JAC) based in Hilo, Hawaii;
- The Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes (ING) at the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos on La Palma in the Canary Islands, primarily the William Herschel Telescope (WHT)
Acting on advice and recommendations from its Science Board, Council has now agreed to:
- extend operation of JCMT to end September 2014, to allow for completion of the agreed science programme for the SCUBA-2 instrument on the JCMT;
- cease STFC support for the operation of UKIRT from end September 2013, a year after the completion of its current survey programme;
- extend operations of ING initially until March 2015, which will provide additional time for negotiations with existing partners with the goal of retaining continued access to the northern sky for UK astronomers.
"We are pleased to be able to extend the operation of the Hawaii telescopes for at least another year to enable further excellent research to be conducted", Professor Womersley said. "STFC shares the UK astronomy community's desire to maintain access to telescopes in the northern hemisphere as well as to the world-leading European facilities in Chile, and we are confident that our discussions with Spain and the Netherlands in relation to the ING will be positive."
"However, we must now also commence negotiations with the University of Hawaii as the leaseholder of the Mauna Kea sites, and with other potential operators of each of the Hawaii telescopes. If a suitable alternate operator is not identified for either Hawaiian telescope, STFC will decommission that telescope and restore the site as required by the lease."
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With a 3.8 metre diameter mirror, the UK Infrared Telescope (UKIRT: http://www.jach.hawaii.edu/UKIRT/) is the second largest dedicated infrared telescope in the world. Sited at an altitude of 4200 m on the top of the volcano Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii, it began operations in 1979. UKIRT is carrying out the UKIRT Deep Sky Survey (UKIDSS: http://www.ukidss.org/) searching for objects from nearby brown dwarfs to distant quasars. In 2012 the UKIDSS team received the RAS Group Award.
The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT: http://www.jach.hawaii.edu/JCMT/) observes submillimetre radiation, emitted in the region of the spectrum between far-infrared and microwaves. JCMT is also on Mauna Kea and is the largest telescope of its kind in the world. The telescope saw ‘first light’ in 1987 and is run by the UK, Canada and the Netherlands. The Submillimetre Common User Bolometric Array 2 (SCUBA-2) is mounted on JCMT and is surveying the Galaxy and wider universe for undiscovered populations of stars and galaxies.
The Royal Astronomical Society
The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS, www.ras.org.uk), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organizes scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3500 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.
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