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STS-120 day 2 highlights

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More gloom for UK astronomy
BY EMILY BALDWIN
ASTRONOMY NOW

Posted: March 10, 2008


The Lovell telescope today, still the third-largest fully-steerable telescope in the world, and in important part of the UK's MERLIN network of radio telescope. Image: Jodrell Bank.

Just weeks after the UK's involvement in the Gemini telescopes was reinstated, and UK astronomy suffers another blow at the hands of STFC in the latest announcement that the e-MERLIN project (Multi-Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network), an array of radio telescopes including the dish at Jodrell Bank, may face closure within the next year.

MERLIN is the world's largest array of linked telescopes that operate live: radio signals received by the telescopes are brought back to Jodrell Bank in real time, via radio links. The upgrade, turning MERLIN into e-MERLIN, is replacing the radio links with optical fibres in the ground, an £8 million pound operation that can be likened to changing an internet connection from dial-up to broadband. The upgrade will increase the observing sensitivity by a factor of 30.

"There's a whole new world of radio astronomy that's waiting to be opened up with this telescope," says Dr Tim O'Brien, Senior Lecturer in astrophysics at Jodrell Bank, "however, the project won't begin operations until 2009, and the funding might be withdrawn even before we can turn the telescope on. We're trying to persuade people that this is not the right decision to make." The e-MERLIN project will allow scientists to address some of the most important astrophysical themes identified in the STFC Science Roadmap, including questions surrounding the evolution of stars, planets and galaxies, and 'are we alone in the Universe?

The knock-on effect of the proposed closure would be huge; not only would there be local fall-out of jobs at Jodrell Bank and the University of Manchester's astronomy department, which is the second largest department of it's kind after Cambridge, but also to the involvement of the UK in radio astronomy in Europe, and even the world. The team behind e-MERLIN are also involved with the future generation of radio telescopes, in the form of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will be located in the Southern Hemisphere in either South Africa or Australia. It was recently announced that the global headquarters of the SKA operations will be based at Jodrell Bank, a decision that was made because of the UK's current world leading role in radio astronomy.

"Clearly SKA will be an amazing instrument, but its construction is not due to begin until 2012, and it wouldn't be completed until 2020," explains O'Brien, " so here we have a system [e-MERLIN] we're just about to switch on which will fill the gap before SKA arrives, and it's been suggested that we're not going to have the chance to demonstrate that". O'Brien and colleagues are also exorcised by the proposal to withdraw support from other global projects too: "We take part in the VLBI (Very Long Baseline Interferometer) which is spread across several continents and has involvements from China, South Africa and occasionally the US, and support for this may also be withdrawn. Radio astronomy is a subject that we pioneered more than 50 years ago, and we still play a world leading role as demonstrated by our involvement in SKA, it seems bizarre to withdraw from MERLIN at this stage". Indeed, the iconic Jodrell Bank telescope has inspired generations, achieving international credibility over 50 years ago when it successfully tracked the Soviet Union's Sputnik satellite, which ignited the space race.

Although this recent kick in the teeth came as shock to scientists working at Jodrell Bank, it must be stressed that no decision into the fate of the telescopes has actually been made; the proposal that e-MERLIN is to lose its funding in 2009 is now under consideration, with a final decision to be made 'later'. e-MERLIN joins a long list of other projects with serious question marks over their future, since STFC announced a deficit in funding of £80 million last November, which must now be recovered.

To read more about the e-MERLIN project and the official response to the STFC review see http://www.merlin.ac.uk/e-merlin/

To find out more about the STFC budget cuts and how you can support the future of British astronomy see www.saveastronomy.org.uk

To join the petition to save Jodrell Bank go to http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/jodrellfunding/

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