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Thursday, 23 November, 2000, 04:38 GMT
Observatory coup for UK astronomers
The VLT will give unprecedented views of the Universe
British astronomers have been told they can join the project that will operate the largest optical telescope in the world.

The government set out the details of its science budget on Wednesday and indicated that substantial funds required for UK membership of the European Southern Observatory (Eso) would be made available.

This is excellent news for UK science and lays the foundation for cutting edge research over the next 10 years

Prof Mike Edmunds
Eso's main facility is the Very Large Telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile, due to become fully operational next year. Its advanced optics technology is expected to give unprecedented views of the Universe - but it does not come cheap.

The initial Eso joining fee is 70m with annual payments of 12m after that. The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (Pparc) will have to contribute to these costs and this means some existing astronomy projects may be cut back.

Larger British interests such as the UK Infrared Telescope or the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes on Hawaii could be threatened. As could UK participation in a number of European Space Agency missions.

Positive response

Eso membership would give UK astronomers access to the optical array at the La Silla observatory, also in Chile. But it is the VLT which is the most exciting prospect.

M83 Eso
Spiral galaxy M83: The VLT is already producing spectacular images
It consists of four 8.2-metre and several 1.8-metre telescopes. These telescopes can be used in combination as a giant interferometer to mimic a truly massive, single telescope. And advanced optics ensure the VLT gets the sharpest view of an object despite having to look through Earth's turbulent atmosphere.

Professor Mike Edmunds, who recently chaired the UK Astronomy Review Panel which set out a programme of opportunities and priorities for the next 10-20 years, said of the intention to join the Eso: "This is excellent news for UK science and lays the foundation for cutting edge research over the next 10 years.

"British astronomers will be delighted by the government's rapid and positive response to their case."

Science investment

Announcing the allocations from the science budget to the UK's seven research councils, Trade and Industry Secretary Stephen Byers said research into the role of genes would take a major share of the money available.

He said 252m would be invested by the councils in three key areas:

  • Genomics - 110m will allow researchers to develop new diagnostic tests and new drugs based on the information gleaned in the human genome project;
  • e-science - 98m will develop the new high-power computing resources that will increasingly be needed to handle the vast amounts of research data shared around the world, principally over the net;
  • Basic technology - 44m will be used to fund new technologies such as quantum computing, bio-engineering, photonics and nanotechnology - areas which will form the basis of major new industries of the future.
In addition, the research councils would be given a further 100m for work in their own specific areas, Mr Byers said. It is from this money that Eso membership would be funded.

The announced money is part of an overall package of government science investment amounting to 725m over the next three years.

"We have the potential to lead the world in many areas, but to do so will require substantial investment," Mr Byers said.

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25 Mar 99 | Sci/Tech
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