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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 February 2008, 18:14 GMT
Astronomers given Gemini reprieve
By Paul Rincon
Science reporter, BBC News

Gemini North Observatory (Gemini Observatory)
Key site: The Frederick C Gillett Gemini North Telescope
British astronomers have been given a temporary reprieve over their access to two of the world's finest telescopes.

In January, administrators announced their intention to withdraw from UK participation in Gemini, as they looked to plug an 80m hole in their finances.

This would have barred UK astronomers from viewing the Northern Hemisphere sky with the largest telescope class.

The UK will now continue its operations payments for 2008 and plans to explore options for continued involvement.

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

Gemini South, located in the Chilean Andes, and Gemini North, in Hawaii, are only now reaching their full potential after 15 years of development.

The UK currently puts about 4m into Gemini each year, with an equal 24% share of the North and South telescopes.

Researchers were aghast when the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which looks after UK astronomy funding, announced its intention to cancel the subscription to Gemini.

Time reinstated

But some observers now say the STFC appears to have altered its position with regards to involvement in the consortium, from negotiating its withdrawal to negotiating a reduction in its investment.

However, a spokesman for the Science and Technology Facilities Council told BBC News: "STFC's position in respect to the Gemini Observatory has always been to negotiate a reduced level of investment due to (comprehensive spending review) budget allocation constraints.

"These discussions with Gemini are currently ongoing."

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, was rebuffed by the partners; and the STFC announced in January that it had no option but to seek a formal cancellation of its subscription.

In a statement, the Gemini partnership said: "The board has received new correspondence from the STFC regarding the UK involvement in Gemini.

"The UK has committed to continue their operations payments during 2008, and wishes to open negotiations with the [Gemini] executive agency and the board to explore their options for continued participation in the Gemini Observatory."

Accordingly, the Gemini board said it would conditionally reinstate observing time allocations for UK astronomers on both Gemini North and Gemini South for the current 2008 semester, which runs from February to July. This means that astronomers can continue using the telescopes until at least this summer.

Access rights

Sources said the earlier decision by Britain to cancel its Gemini subscription had prompted an angry reaction from within the consortium, which had taken the UK flag down "very quickly" at its headquarters.

However, the most recent language from the Gemini board sounded more conciliatory, they observed.

The news received a cautious welcome from astronomers. One researcher told the BBC that the decision to withdraw from Gemini had been "hasty", but that the latest news was a "potential first step" towards the UK remaining a partner.

Observers speculate that the UK could save money by selling some of its observing time on the Gemini South telescope in order to retain access to Gemini North.

UK astronomers can still view the Southern Hemisphere sky through their access to the four large 8.2m telescopes at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. But Gemini North provides their only view of the Northern Hemisphere sky with the largest class of telescope.

The latest development on Gemini is understood to have followed consultation between the STFC's executive, its science board and the Astronomy and Nuclear Physics Science Committee (PPan).

The PPan sub-committee is understood to have placed Gemini as a higher scientific priority when it assessed individual projects as part of the STFC's latest programmatic review.

Forthcoming negotiations

Observers are now wondering about the possible knock-on effects of remaining within the Gemini partnership.

The Astronomy Technology Centre (ATC) in Edinburgh had been well-placed to pick up the main contract for building a next generation instrument at one of the Gemini sites called the Precision Radial-Velocity Spectrometer (PRVS).

When the STFC signalled its intention to withdraw from the consortium, the contract "turned to dust". But observers now wonder whether it could now be back on the table, with the potential to safeguard jobs at the centre.

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

In order to manage its way out of the crisis, the STFC announced its intention to close certain programmes and cut research grants.

Science societies and union officials warned the damage to UK physics and astronomy would be incalculable and would lead to hundreds of job losses.

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