Fair fare for Mars Express

July 18, 1997

IT IS disingenuous of my colleague Jasper Wall to contrast the landing of Nasa's Pathfinder mission on the surface of Mars with the decision to vacate the Royal Greenwich Observatory building in Cambridge (THES, July 11).

One reason why most astronomers have concluded that Britain cannot afford two major sites here (in support of a suite of telescopes now based overseas) is precisely to release scarce Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council funds to enable our researchers to participate in areas of science opened by future international projects such as Planck-Surveyor and Mars Express.

Dr Wall is right to claim the primary role of RGO in establishing the competitive Isaac Newton Group telescopes on La Palma, and for a substantial contribution to the construction of the twin eight-metre (Gemini) telescopes to be installed from next year on mountain sites in Hawaii and Chile. Several university groups are playing a major role on the latter project and the UK Gemini work is led from the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh. The main point is that PPARC sees little prospect in being involved in further large optical/infrared telescope construction over the next five to ten years and has concluded that scarce resources must now be moved into instrumentation and science exploitation.

A further conclusion of my council is that a greater fraction of PPARC research funds should be moved into universities, in which physics and astronomy is growing strongly, as recruitment of permanent staff begins to replace the Robbins generation of academics. PPARC's decision to consolidate technical support of our overseas operations on a single site was the outcome preferred in the proposals PPARC received from both RGO and ROE, on grounds of cost-effectiveness. It was the view of most UK astronomers (as shown in the recent RAS survey) and happens, also, to have been the conclusion of the SERC board responsible for the funding of UK astronomy as long ago as 1983.

The more difficult question for the PPARC council was the choice of site for the Astronomy Technology Centre. In the event, that choice was Edinburgh.

Finally, Dr Wall expresses concern about "double counting" in the claim that Pounds 2.45 million rising to Pounds 4 million per year will be released for new research at the universities. I can confirm that is precisely the prospective gain to PPARC responsive-mode grants by moving funds from no-longer-needed telescope engineering and support activities into the full exploitation of our overseas telescopes (including Gemini) and into a modest investment in exciting new areas of science that will be opened up by next millennium projects such as Planck-Surveyor and, possibly, Mars Express.

Ken Pounds

PPARC chief executive

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