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  • Astronomers decry UK’s defunding of Hawaii telescopes

Photonics Spectra
Aug 2012
HARWELL, UK — May 31 was “a sad day for British astronomy,” according to David Southwood, president of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS). That was the day the Science and Technologies Facilities Council (STFC) announced that it would close — or transfer to other organizations — the Hawaii-based James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) and the UK Infra-Red Telescope (UKIRT).

STFC Chief Executive John Womersley said that the council had met two days earlier and decided, upon the recommendation of its science board, that both telescopes would close if a “suitable alternate operator” were not found. Both are on the volcano Mauna Kea on the main island of Hawaii; UKIRT will be decommissioned in September 2013 and JCMT, in September 2014, after it has completed the science program for the Submillimetre Common User Bolometric Array 2 (SCUBA-2) instrument. UKIRT and JCMT are both operated by the Joint Astronomy Centre.

UKIRT, the second-largest dedicated infrared telescope in the world, is slated to close in 2013. Courtesy of the Joint Astronomy Centre.

“The closure of these innovative facilities, telescopes that continue to deliver ground-breaking research ... will further reduce the capacity of UK astronomers to carry out world-leading science,” Southwood said.

With a 3.8-m mirror, UKIRT is the second-largest dedicated IR telescope in the world. Sited atop the volcano at an altitude of 4200 m, it began operation in 1979. It is carrying out the Deep Sky Survey, searching for objects ranging from nearby brown dwarfs to distant quasars.

The JCMT, also on Mauna Kea, is the largest telescope in the world dedicated to submillimeter radiation, between the far-IR and microwaves. The telescope saw “first light” in 1987 and is run by the UK, Canada and the Netherlands. The SCUBA-2 is mounted on JCMT and is surveying the galaxy and wider universe for undiscovered populations of stars and galaxies.

“We must now also commence negotiations with the University of Hawaii as the leaseholder of the Mauna Kea sites, and with other potential operators of each of the Hawaii telescopes. If a suitable alternate operator is not identified for either Hawaiian telescope, STFC will decommission that telescope and restore the site as required by the lease,” Womersley said.

“It is sad to see plans for the end of life of facilities which have given such good service to the astronomy community and made possible major advances in our understanding of the universe we live in,” said professor Stuart Palmer, the Institute of Physics’ interim chief executive. “They still offer unique capabilities, and we hope that ways will be found to make them available for UK astronomers to use as long as they are of value.”

The STFC also said that operations of the Isaac Newton Group of telescopes on La Palma in the Canary Islands, primarily the William Herschel Telescope (WHT), will be extended until March 2015 to provide time for negotiations with existing partners, in the hope of continued access for UK astronomers. The WHT observes the sky in visible light.

“Without the WHT, UK astronomers would have been in the odd position of being unable to observe the Northern Hemisphere of the sky ... at optical wavelengths,” the RAS said. “This access is also critical for instrument development and for observations that complement new radio observatories like the pan-European LOFAR [low frequency] array.”

The decision, a consequence of government cuts to the UK science budget, will result in the loss of about 40 jobs, the RAS said.

“After consultation with the astronomical community, I am pleased that STFC has found a solution that will allow UK scientists to continue to use the Isaac Newton Group, an issue of concern for the RAS since 2007,” Southwood said. “At the moment, UK astronomers and space scientists are amongst the most productive in the world and are second only to the United States in the number of citations of our scientific papers.”

The UKIRT board said in a statement that it was “very disappointed” in the STFC’s decision “and [we] do not understand why the opportunity to continue scientific operations for another year has been rejected, particularly as the operations costs that would fall on STFC are very low.” With contributions from international customers and the shared operation with JCMT, the additional funding needed to operate UKIRT to September 2014 is less than £100,000 (about $155,000), the board said.

“UKIRT’s productivity is at an all-time high, with the number of papers published in 2011 amongst the highest of any telescope in the world,” the board added. “We hope that another organization will come forward to take over operation of UKIRT and continue its heritage of outstanding, world-leading astronomy from one of the very best observing locations on Earth.”

“As we move to step up involvement in projects like the Square Kilometre Array and the European Extremely Large Telescope, the UK needs to remain a credible international partner with a decent research infrastructure. Reduction in access to astronomical observatories and in research funding more generally puts this at risk,” Southwood said.

“We hope that UK astronomers will be able to play a full part in these new programs,” Palmer said.

The STFC is an independent, nondepartmental public body of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The STFC’s predecessor council for astronomy agreed in 2001 to wind down operations of the island telescopes as part of UK accession to the European Southern Observatory organization. Membership in ESO gives UK astronomers access to world-class telescopes in Chile.

In 2009, a prioritization of the STFC science program recommended the closure of both sites by the end of 2012; however, the STFC extended the life of both groups of telescopes to complete existing science programs and commissioned a review of the future of both telescopes by its science board, an independent scientific advisory body. The STFC council’s decision was based on that advice.

The scientific observation of celestial radiation that has reached the vicinity of Earth, and the interpretation of these observations to determine the characteristics of the extraterrestrial bodies and phenomena that have emitted the radiation.
An afocal optical device made up of lenses or mirrors, usually with a magnification greater than unity, that renders distant objects more distinct, by enlarging their images on the retina.
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