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Last Updated: Saturday, 26 January 2008, 14:21 GMT
Skies dim for British astronomers
By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News

Gemini North Observatory (Gemini Observatory)
Lost time: The Frederick C Gillett Gemini North Telescope
UK astronomers will lose access to two of the world's finest telescopes in February, as administrators look to plug an 80m hole in their finances.

Observation programmes on the 8.1m telescopes of the Gemini organisation will end abruptly because Britain is cancelling its subscription.

It means UK astronomers can no longer view the Northern Hemisphere sky with the largest class of telescope.

Researchers say they are aghast at the administrators' decision.

"To withdraw from the state-of-the-art Gemini facilities leaves the UK ground-based astronomy strategy in disarray - some would say deliberately sabotaged," said Professor Paul Crowther from Sheffield University.

"This will badly affect the UK astronomical community's ability to address questions such as how galaxies form, or look for planets around other stars, or be able to adequately exploit space observatories such as the Hubble Space Telescope," explained the current chair of the UK telescope allocation committee for Gemini.

"The loss of Gemini North is particularly acute, since the majority of the UK past investment has been focused upon the Northern Hemisphere," he told BBC News.

Budget shortfall

Gemini is one of the international "science clubs" in which Britain has been a major partner and investor. It has a 23.8% share in the project (which also includes the US, Canada, Chile, Australia, Brazil and Argentina) and to date has invested some 70m in construction and running costs.

Membership of the consortium gave British astronomers direct access to two of the biggest, most-modern optical-infrared reflecting telescopes in the world.

Stars in Orion (Gemini Observatory/T.Rector)
The Gemini telescopes take beautiful, pin-sharp images
Gemini South, located in the Chilean Andes, and Gemini North, in Hawaii, are only now reaching their full potential after 15 years of development.

But the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which looks after UK astronomy funding, has signalled that formal notice to withdraw from Gemini would be issued shortly as it seeks to close a large shortfall in its budget.

The STFC's problems have emerged out of the government's latest spending round which has left the council short of 80m in the three-year budget plan to 2011.

To manage its way out of this crisis, the STFC has announced its intention to close certain programmes and cut research grants. Science societies and union officials have warned the damage to UK physics and astronomy will be incalculable and will lead to hundreds of job losses.

Penalty fee

A request was made last year to the Gemini partners to allow the UK to come out of the organisation but still maintain some access to the Frederick C Gillett (Gemini North) facility through to the end of the current contract in 2012.

This request, however, has been rebuffed by the partners; and the STFC announced on Friday that it now had no option but to seek a formal cancellation of its subscription.

Observations booked on the Gemini telescopes from 1 February will now be terminated.

"While we sincerely regret the need to withdraw from Gemini, the current circumstances leave us no choice," the STFC said in a statement.

"This is particularly relevant in the context of preserving the highest priority programmes and providing headroom to pursue the next generation of scientific opportunities, for example the Extremely Large Telescope."

The ELT is a super-scope that will have a mirrored surface tens of metres across. It is still in the design phase and will not be built for a number of years.

Britain will incur a penalty of about 8m for cancelling its Gemini membership early; but this would still save more than 15m in "subs" that no longer needed to be paid between now and 2012, according to the STFC's statement.

"We've effectively wasted 70m," countered Professor Crowther. "These facilities had reached their prime, but somebody else is now going to get to use them."

He said the STFC, if it had wanted to save money, should have maintained its membership and rented out a proportion of its time to another nation's astronomers. That way it would have saved the penalty fee, he argued.

"The STFC strategy just doesn't make sense."

Club commitments

The decision of the UK to withdraw from Gemini has undoubtedly angered its partners.

VLT (Eso)
Southern Hemisphere time is still available on Eso facilities
The Gemini consortium has a programme of instrument upgrades proposed for its two telescopes, and the way this is funded into the future will now need to be reassessed.

On Thursday last week, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) - another international organisation with which the UK holds a subscription - expressed concern over how the state of British physics funding might affect its development.

The ESRF has a major upgrade planned and is hoping the UK will still be able to meet its share of the extra costs.

British astronomers will continue to have access to eight-metre-class telescopes in the Southern Hemisphere, in particular through the UK's membership of the European Southern Observatory organisation (Eso).

The Eso has four 8.2m telescopes at its Paranal site in Chile.

In future, the only way British astronomers can look at the Northern Hemisphere sky with the largest class of telescope is if they are working on projects with co-researchers whose national funding agencies are sponsors of one of these facilities.

Effectively, however, British scientists are now locked out from looking at what is directly above the UK with the world's best telescopes.

(UK astronomers still have access to the 4.2m UK/Dutch William Herschel Telescope on La Palma).

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