Money for Merlin will buy Britain best ears on Earth

April 12, 2001

Astronomers are cautiously optimistic that they will soon raise the money needed to turn the United Kingdom's radio telescope network into one of the most powerful on the planet.

Fears for the future of the Merlin array, which includes the Jodrell Bank observatory, have been fuelled by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council's inability to meet the project's £8.6 million cost. The PPARC's coffers will be strained by the cost of buying into the European Southern Observatory.

However, scientists leading the effort to upgrade Merlin are hopeful sufficient backing may already have been found.

Phil Diamond, director of Merlin, said talks were ongoing to bring in funds from Manchester University, which operates both Jodrell Bank and Merlin, the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology and an unnamed regional agency. There is also £1 million of savings in the existing operating budget.

"We're within reach of getting the money to make Merlin one of the most powerful radio telescopes in the world," he said.

The research council's astronomy committee last month gave its approval to the project. While the PPARC was unlikely to contribute to the £8.6 million required, Dr Diamond said it could meet operating costs.

The upgrade will involve linking Merlin's seven radio telescopes that stretch 217km from the Welsh borders to Cambridge with broadband fibre optic cables.

This would greatly increase the amount of data the network can handle, making it 30 times more sensitive than at present and enabling it to pick out detail on fainter and more distant objects.

The UK's astronomical community overwhelmingly supported joining the ESO, which will set the pace in optical astronomy for many years. With the Merlin upgrade, they could also enjoy unrivalled access to one of the world's two most powerful radio telescopes, possibly by as early as 2005.

Nevertheless, Dr Diamond warned this radical reshaping of UK observational astronomy would inevitably involve cuts among existing projects.

• There was more good news for British astronomers last week when the UK joined European, North American and Japanese delegates to sign a joint resolution to build a giant telescope in Chile.

This device, called the Atacama Large Millimetre/Submillimetre Array, or Alma, will be made up of 64 transportable 12m diameter antenna spread over 14km. It will detect signals with different wavelengths to those observable with Merlin or ESO.

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