World-class telescopes face closure

Two major telescopes are facing an uncertain future after the UK today announced it is to withdraw funding from them. The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) and United Kingdom Infra-Red Telescope (UKIRT), both in Hawaii, will be decommissioned and dismantled if other operators cannot be found to take them over.

The JCMT open for business on Mauna Kea. Credit: Joint Astronomy Centre Hawaii

That is because the sites of the telescopes on the island of Mauna Kea have to be restored to their original condition under the terms of the lease that was granted when they were built.

The cash-strapped Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has decided to wind down astronomy on Hawaii as it becomes more involved with operations in Chile as part of the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

UK astronomers will continue to have access to the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes (ING) on the Canary Island of La Palma to allow them to observe northern skies.

The loss of the 15-metre JCMT, which is the world’s largest sub-millimetre telescope, is being announced just a month after it celebrated its 25th birthday. It comes as something of a shock to the astronomical community, but withdrawal from Hawaii was being flagged way back in 2001 and again in 2009 when the STFC made a similarly controversial decision to pull out of the Gemini twin telescopes project.

The problem for the JCMT is that the UK is just the latest nation to withdraw support for the telescope. Canada’s NRC Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics announced plans to do so in 2009 and the Netherlands will end its partnership in the project in March next year.

The STFC tried to put a positive gloss on the decision over Hawaii by reporting that operations on both telescopes would be extended to complete planned science. That means the JCMT will be funded to September 2014 so that an agreed observing programme for its SCUBA-2 instrument can continue. STFC support for UKIRT will end a year earlier, in September 2013, following completion of its current survey programme.

The good news for UK astronomers was agreement to extend operations of the ING telescopes at the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos on La Palma while negotiations continue with partner nations to keep access to the northern sky. Particularly important here is the 4.2 metre William Herschel Telescope (WHT).

Making today’s announcement, STFC chief executive Professor John Womersley said: “We are pleased to be able to extend the operation of the Hawaii telescopes for at least another year to enable further excellent research to be conducted.

“STFC shares the UK astronomy community’s desire to maintain access to telescopes in the northern hemisphere as well as to the world-leading European facilities in Chile, and we are confident that our discussions with Spain and the Netherlands in relation to the ING will be positive.

“However, we must now also commence negotiations with the University of Hawaii as the leaseholder of the Mauna Kea sites, and with other potential operators of each of the Hawaii telescopes. If a suitable alternate operator is not identified for either Hawaiian telescope, STFC will decommission that telescope and restore the site as required by the lease.”

Official comment on the announcement came from the heads of the Royal Astronomical Society and the Institute of Physics. RAS President Professor David Southwood said: “The closure of these innovative facilities, telescopes that continue to deliver ground-breaking research, is a sad day for British astronomy. It will further reduce the capacity of UK astronomers to carry out world-leading science.”

But he added: “After consultation with the astronomical community, I am pleased that STFC has found a solution that will allow UK scientists to continue to use the Isaac Newton Group, an issue of concern for the RAS since 2007.”

Professor Stuart Palmer, the IoP’s interim Chief Executive, said: “It is sad to see plans for the end of life of facilities which have given such good service to the astronomy community and made possible major advances in our understanding of the universe we live in. They still offer unique capabilities, and we hope that ways will be found to make them available for UK astronomers to use as long as they are of value.”

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