UK plans withdrawal from telescope teams
HILO » The United Kingdom has announced its plan to withdraw from participation in the two Gemini observatories, one on Mauna Kea and the other in Chile, because of budget concerns, according to the Royal Astronomical Society.
The decision will leave British astronomers with no access to large telescopes in the Northern Hemisphere, although it still has agreements to use large telescopes in the southern hemisphere, society officials said earlier this month.
"This decision is a serious mistake and a shock to all of us," Michael Rowan-Robinson, society president, said in a press release. "If it goes ahead, it will deny UK scientists access to large telescopes in the northern hemisphere and hinder their ability to study almost half the sky."
Gemini issued a statement saying its board of directors "deeply regrets" the British decision.
The Gemini observatories are run by a partnership of United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Chile, Australia, Argentina and Brazil, plus the University of Hawaii. The British share of the viewing time is 24 percent.
The decision to pull out was made by Britain's Science and Technology Facilities Council to save about $8.2 million a year, the society said. It means walking away from a British investment in the 1990s of 35 million pounds sterling, or about $71.5 million at current conversion rates.
"They obviously have a budget problem," said Rolf-Peter Kudritzki, head of the UH Institute for Astronomy.
The British decision will not have a negative effect on astronomy in Hawaii, Kudritzki said. The United States or another nation will step in and acquire the available viewing time on the Gemini telescopes, he predicted.
The Gemini statement said the board will "expeditiously" resolve any "resource problems."
Kudritzki expected something like this a few years ago when the United Kingdom made an expensive purchase of a viewing time at the European Southern Observatory in Chile, consisting of four of the largest telescopes in the world.
Britain has two other observatories on Mauna Kea, the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope, wholly owned by Britain, and the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, a 49-foot dish, owned by Britain, Canada, and the Netherlands, that studies radiolike submillimeter waves.
UKIRT, with a 13-foot mirror, can find objects in space that are worthy of more study, but it can't see the detail visible to giants like Gemini, said Inge Heyer, spokesperson for the two British telescopes.