Stargaze in Chile prompts UK pain

July 7, 2000

A wide-ranging review of the United Kingdom's ground-based observatories is under consideration.

The astronomy committee of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council last week agreed to recommend that Britain joins the European Southern Observatory collaboration. This will prompt the biggest shake up in the discipline for years.

ESO membership will give British astronomers access to a suite of 8m optical telescopes being built in Chile and a role in the future development of far larger telescopes.

This will depend on the government's willingness to provide much of the funding - an entrance fee of Pounds 65 million plus a Pounds 12 million annual subscription. Savings of Pounds 5 million a year would still need to be found from the PPARC's optical and infrared telescopes budget.

Eric Priest, professor of mathematics at St Andrews University and chairman of the astronomy committee, said there would be open presentations on UK facilities in the autum. "The committee recognised the need (ESO membership will prompt) for a major restructuring of our ground-based telescopes in ways that we would decide in detail later, after a careful and in-depth review," he added.

Professor Priest said there would still be a commitment to continue supporting niche areas where UK astronomers lead the world.

Among the facilities likely to be looked at for potential savings will be the Isaac Newton Group of telescopes on La Palma and the Anglo-Australian Telescope.

Philip Diamond, director of the national radio astronomy network Merlin, another of the facilities that might be affected by cuts, said: "We know there is going to be a considerable amount of pain in the community."

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