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Shock as UK withdraws from Gemini Observatory
BY KEITH COOPER
ASTRONOMY NOW

Posted: November 16, 2007


Dome of the Gemini North telescope at sunset. Copyright 1999, Neelon Crawford - Polar Fine Arts, courtesy of Gemini Observatory and National Science Foundation.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council, STFC, shocked the UK's professional astronomy community on November 15 with their sudden decision to pull out of partnership with the two eight-metre Gemini Telescopes that make up the Gemini Observatory. "It would move us from the first division to the second division," in terms of astronomy research, according to Professor Michael Rowan-Robinson, President of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS).

The two Gemini optical telescopes are placed in each hemisphere. The Gemini South telescope is located 9,000 feet above sea leave at the top of a mountain called Cerro Pachon in the Chilean Andes. On the other hand, the Frederick C Gillett Gemini North Telescope is 14,000 feet above sea level at the top of the dormant volcano Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The UK has been an active partner in Gemini since the inception of the telescopes, which saw 'first-light' respectively in 1999 and 2000. The UK invested £35 million in building the telescopes, and have a 23 percent stake overall.

In a statement issued by STFC, the reason for the withdrawal from Gemini is a reaction to the shortfall of £80 million in STFC's budget, announced recently by the Treasury's Comprehensive Spending Review. "In the current financial climate this is one of a range of measures that has become necessary in order to invest in what STFC considers its highest priority programmes, including other areas of ground-based astronomy," said the statement. "Our aim will be to achieve withdrawal in a way that minimises damage to our longstanding partnership and the impact on the Observatory, its programme and the UK research community."

However, that is not the way that the UK astronomy community sees it. Currently Britain has access to six eight-metre class telescopes; five in Chile in the Southern Hemisphere including the four at the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope and Gemini South, and just one in the Northern Hemisphere - Gemini North.

"The RAS' position is that one can argue that cutting the access from five Southern Hemisphere telescopes to four isn't a catastrophe," says Rowan-Robinson. "But in the north it is very serious because Gemini North is the only eight-metre telescope we have access to there. We have a strong involvement in various space missions such as the Spitzer Space Telescope, XMM-Newton and the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and next year we are strongly involved in two sub-millimetre wavelength missions, Herschel and Planck. Those missions are going to study the whole sky and the objects that they find can be anywhere on the sky and we need to be able to follow them up in both hemispheres. So we think it would be a very serious mistake to abandon Gemini North. It is unthinkable really."


The Gemini Observatory at work. A colour composite adaptive optics image of the planetary nebula M2-9 using the ALTAIR adaptive optics system on Gemini North.

The move threatens to remove Britain from the forefront of astronomical research. According to Rowan-Robinson, who has co-authored a letter to The Guardian in response to this shock decision, the UK is "the most successful astronomy nation after the United States. We work in all areas of astronomy and have a very high level of impact in terms of citations." But other European countries are taking steps forward, with Italy and Germany negotiating to become partners in Gemini North and Spain building their own ten-metre telescope, the Grand Tucan.

What has upset UK astronomers has been the lack of consultation over the decision. "We haven't found any evidence of consultation," says Rowan-Robinson. "We now need to find out how this happened because basically the way science decisions and strategic decisions are made in research councils like STFC is that they are meant to be done after peer-review and consultation. We normally think we are involved in these kinds of decisions. I spoke to STFC only last week about the implications of the Comprehensive Spending Review and no mention was made of this plan."

And this may not be the end of the cutbacks. The UK pays £4 million per year in running costs towards Gemini, so obviously this won't be enough to make up STFC's £80 million shortfall. Rowan-Robinson agrees. "I don't think it will be a one-off. There will be other cuts."

It is hoped that STFC can be convinced to change their mind and negotiate continued access to Gemini North, depending upon whether Gemini's other partners (the USA, Canada, Chile, Australia, Brazil and Argentina) agree to it.

"I guess we would also be looking to the Government to compensate STFC for their problems and arguing that they shouldn't fall on the astronomy programme," says Rowan-Robinson.

STFC declined to comment beyond their statement until after a meeting of the Council on 21 November.

For more information about the Gemini Telescopes, visit http://gemini.edu/home.php.

To see STFC's statement in full, go to http://www.scitech.ac.uk/About/Strat/Council/gemini.aspx

To read the RAS' response, see http://www.ras.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1355&Itemid=2

Finally, to read the letter from UK astronomers to The Guardian in response to the decision, visit http://www.guardian.co.uk/letters/story/0,,2212018,00.html

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