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Monday, 17 July, 2000, 15:50 GMT 16:50 UK
Jodrell Bank faces uncertain future
Lovell Jodrell Bank
The Lovell Telescope: 43 years of good service
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

The future of the world-famous Jodrell Bank radio observatory in Cheshire, UK, has been thrown into doubt after questions were raised about its future funding.

The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PParc), responsible for funding Britain's observatories, said it needed to "look long and hard" at the long-term future of all existing telescopes.

PParc said that it had been advised that the Jodrell Bank network of linked radio telescopes, called Merlin, might cease to be internationally competitive if they were not upgraded by 2005.

But PParc said it did not have the 10 million for the upgrade at a time when commitments exceeded resources.

The question of an upgrade to Jodrell Bank's Merlin array of telescopes is to be discussed by an international panel of experts later this year.

The major problem facing PParc is whether to join the European Southern Observatory (Eso).

Because of the expense of joining the Eso, PParc has said that "it is inevitable, therefore, that the linked questions of the Merlin upgrade, the long-term future of Jodrell Bank, and UK membership of Eso should feature on the PParc agenda."

Staying competitive

PParc said that to remain at the forefront of science over the next 10 or 20 years, British astronomers needed to have access to the biggest and the best telescopes in the world, and it was its responsibility to ensure that this happened.

Lovell Jodrell Bank
The Lovell Telescope was recently upgraded
Already a review by British astronomers, not carried out by PParc, has said that joining the Eso was a priority for British astronomy that would allow British scientists to participate in the development of the new telescopes that would be essential in the next decade and beyond.

Unfortunately, PParc does not have the money needed to join the European Southern Observatory.

The cost of joining Eso would be around 65m, which might be spread over 10 years.

PParc wants the UK Government to find the money. But even if it did, PParc would still have to save about 12 million a year.

No decision yet

The research council stressed that no decisions had been made on any telescope, far less on telescope closures, and no major changes to the funding of existing telescopes could be expected for five years or so.

Array Jodrell Bank
Part of the array of telescopes at Jodrell Bank
Insiders said that closing Jodrell Bank would be politically unacceptable as it would be a severe blow to Britain's scientific prestige. Others commented that the same thing was said about the Royal Greenwich Observatory a few years ago before it was axed.

PParc concluded its statement by saying: "It is clear that if the UK were able to join Eso, which might be possible within the next year or so, this would be an opportunity for the Jodrell Bank Observatory to develop its future on a European or even global scale."

Jodrell Bank staff have reacted with surprise to the speculation.

They said that at recent meetings, astronomers strongly supported the Eso negotiations but not at the cost of the UK's radio telescopes which the Eso optical telescopes cannot replace.

'Unique instrument'

They added that the main instrument at Jodrell Bank, the Lovell Telescope, was undergoing a major enhancement and plans were well-advanced to upgrade Merlin in order to provide British astronomers with a unique instrument ready to work alongside the Hubble Space Telescope and the next generation of telescopes.

The Director of Merlin, Dr Philip Diamond, said: "The sums involved are not large - 6m would transform Britain's home-based radio astronomy facility. This is a drop in the ocean compared with the 20bn the government is receiving for commercial exploitation of the radio spectrum for the next generation of mobile phones."

The threat to Jodrell Bank comes soon after the recent decision to close down the major scientific facility at Daresbury only 32 kilometres (20 miles) away.

Next month, more than 2,000 of the world's leading astronomers will meet in nearby Manchester at the triennial General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU).

The IAU was attracted to Manchester because of the internationally recognised excellence of the Jodrell Bank observatory.

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