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Thursday, 12 April, 2001, 13:14 GMT 14:14 UK
British astronomy faces shake-up

The Isaac Newton telescope may be closed
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

British astronomy is to undergo a radical restructuring, designed to ditch old telescopes and facilities and save money for future international projects.

It could mean Britain's Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (Pparc), the body that funds much of British astronomy, "pulling the plug" on a major astronomical facility.

In the firing line is the world-famous radio astronomy observatory at Jodrell Bank as well as the optical observatories on the Canary Islands and Hawaii.

The Paranal Observatory in South America
The squeeze is a result of Pparc having to find an extra 5 m to join a multi-national consortium to gain access to its advanced telescopes.


The money has to be found to allow Britain to join the European Southern Observatory (ESO) consortium to use its state-of-the-art large optical telescopes at the Paranal Observatory in South America.

The decision to join the ESO was made last November with the British government paying most of the entrance fee. However, Pparc has to make up a shortfall forcing a reappraisal of its activities.

Insiders say that British astronomy has been overtaken by events in the past decade or so, particularly in regard to access to the world's largest optical telescopes, the so-called eight metre class scopes.

Jodrell Bank: Search for funds
British astronomers have access to two of them, the Gemini North and South telescopes built jointly with the United States, but this is not seen as sufficient.

Meanwhile, the multinational ESO was building a suite of them in South America as were the Americans.

Positive attitude

Professor Martin Ward of Leicester University, who heads a committee looking into ways to make the savings, told BBC News Online: "It will be difficult, painful perhaps, but we are approaching this with a positive attitude. The aim is to put British astronomy into a better position for the future.

"Modern astronomy is expensive and international. Being part of a multi-national group is the only way we can secure access for British astronomers to the front-rank telescopes of the future."

Rather than 'top slice' - make small cuts across all activities - something that astronomers believe will degrade effectiveness across the board, the money will be found by terminating entire projects.

Pparc has already turned down Jodrell Bank's request for 8.6m for an upgrade of its Merlin array of telescopes. Without the upgrade, Merlin has a limited future. However, Jodrell Bank astronomers are confident that they can find the money for it from other sources.

From 2005 Pparc will no longer fund the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT). That will save 1.4 m a year.

Since it was commisioned in 1974, the AAT has been a stalwart of British astronomy and, although it is an excellent telescope with excellent facilities, it has been superseded by others.

It is hoped that improved efficiency will reduce the operating costs of three major telescopes that Britain operates: the William Herschel Telescope (WHT) on La Palma in the Canary Islands, and the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) and United Kingdom Infra-Red Telescope (Ukirt), both in Hawaii.

One way to lower their operating costs would be to reduce the number of detectors that can be fitted to the telescopes.

"In the past, telescopes were like Christmas trees - you could hang any number of detectors on them and that took time, effort and expense," said Professor Ward.

"The move is now towards 'speciality telescopes' that do one or two things well. This would be simpler and cheaper."


The outlook is poor for one telescope.

The Isaac Newton Telescope, with its 2.5 metre (8 foot) mirror, is likely to be closed unless some other group, or university department, wants to take it over.

One suggestion is to make it the main telescope in a network to search for and track potentially Earth-threatening asteroids.

Insiders say that the restructuring of British astronomy is the only way that the nation can gain influence in the construction of the large telescopes of the future and provide its large community of astronomers with access to the best equipment.

Studies are underway to build optical telescopes far larger than anything yet constructed. Made of segmented mirrors - like the Keck telescopes, the world's largest - they could be up to 50 metre (164 feet) across.

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See also:

25 Mar 99 | Sci/Tech
Paranal power
22 May 00 | Sci/Tech
Astronomers want bigger telescopes
17 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
Jodrell Bank faces uncertain future
23 Nov 00 | Sci/Tech
Observatory coup for UK astronomers
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