It’s not all black, but it is blue for astronomers

Astronomers have welcomed a partial reprieve granted to the UK’s northern hemisphere telescopes, but have described the closure of two major facilities in Hawaii as a “sad day for British astronomy”.

June 3, 2012

A Science and Technology Facilities Council prioritisation exercise in 2009 recommended the closure of its island-based telescopes by the end of this year, prompting an outcry from astronomers about the loss of all UK access to optical and infrared telescopes in the northern hemisphere.

On the advice of its science board, however, the STFC has now decided to continue funding for the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes on La Palma in the Canary Islands until March 2015 while discussions continue with Spain and the Netherlands about sharing running costs.

Meanwhile, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope and the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope, both in Hawaii, will be kept open until their current experiments are finished. After that, they will be transferred to another operator or decommissioned, with the loss of 40 jobs.

The board of the latter facility says in a statement that it is “very disappointed” and mystified by the STFC’s decision to end its funding in September 2013, arguing that another year of operation would cost less than £100,000.

David Southwood, president of the Royal Astronomical Society, agreed that the Hawaiian telescopes were doing “front-rank” work and described their closure as “a sad day for British astronomy”.

Their loss would “further reduce the capacity of UK astronomers to carry out world-leading science” and damage the UK’s reputation as a “credible” partner in large international projects such as the Square Kilometre Array, whose construction in South Africa and Australia was confirmed last week.

But Professor Southwood, a senior research investigator at Imperial College London, said he had resisted pressure from some astronomers to “jump up and down” on the STFC because he recognised that its hands were tied by the constraints on its budget.

He commended its efforts to minimise the damage to current projects, which represented a partial victory for the society’s lobbying.

He viewed the closures as part of a general move in astronomy towards large international facilities that would continue “as long as scientists say they want bigger and bigger facilities”.

Professor Southwood admitted that the lack of “flexibility” inherent in international collaborations could be frustrating, and, in an ideal world, access would be preserved to national “back-up” facilities.

“But for astronomers in the UK at the moment, we are not living in an ideal world,” he said.

paul.jump@tsleducation.co.uk

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