Our star would be lost in the constellation

August 25, 2000

The United Kingdom should not rush into joining the European Southern Observatory, argues David Carter

Whether or not to join the European Southern Observatory (THES, August 11) is an important decision with profound consequences for all involved in astronomical research, and one that should not be taken lightly.

The UK has a proud record in observational astronomy, stretching back more than 200 years. It is a record founded on ingenuity and innovation, in solving scientific and technical challenges.

The past three decades have been no different. Britain participated as a full partner in the Anglo-Australian Observatory, and as the majority partner in the Isaac Newton Group of telescopes on La Palma and the UK Infrared telescope and the James Clerk Maxwell submillimetre telescope in Hawaii.

All of these have flourished and outperformed other facilities of similar aperture in other sites around the world. What is more, they still do - far outperforming similar facilities of the ESO.

In the era of 8m telescopes, the UK joined the Gemini project as a minority partner in a project driven largely by the United States. Technically, Gemini will prove a success, in large part thanks to British technology, but scientifically the project has been driven in a different direction from the requirements of a large part of the UK community. As a minority partner we were bound to suffer from this. Part of the community has a need for more observing time on 8-10m telescopes, but is the solution to join the ESO as an even smaller minority partner? And will the price be having to give up access to existing facilities that still lead the world in their fields?

The ESO is a bureaucratic organisation with a large and expensive "home-base" infrastructure in Germany. Ironically, the same people who now propose ESO membership decided as little as two years ago that we could not afford our own home base infrastructure in the Royal Observatories in Cambridge and Edinburgh. Changing the ESO decision-making process to fit better with the interests and outlook of the UK will be a long process indeed.

Perhaps the time has come to return to our traditional strengths of ingenuity and innovation. The capital cost of joining the ESO is reported to be Pounds 60 million, with an annual operational fee of about Pounds 12 million. For this money, the UK could lead a number of innovative projects. It could build Robonet, a worldwide network of telescopes that would make great advances in the discovery of extra-solar planets, understanding the nature of accretion discs and active galactic nuclei, and unravelling the nature of gamma-ray bursts. It could build the Large Optical Array. It could extend the ground-breaking Merlin array of radio telescopes to far greater resolution and sensitivity.

It could do all of these things and still have money to employ more young research workers to exploit these developments. And it could still participate in the Atacama Large Millimetre Array, the Square Kilometre Array, and developments towards Extremely Large Optical Telescopes. Indeed, the development of our own innovative projects would put UK academia and industry in a better position to take a leading role in such developments than a capital contribution to a European central pot would. A complete analysis of the costs and benefits of all options is required before we take any irrevocable step.

David Carter is a principal lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University and project scientist for the Liverpool Telescope. He writes in a personal capacity.

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