Yesterday marked the end of the UK’s membership in the Gemini Observatory. The Union Flag was lowered during a brief ceremony, and it is now presumably being packed up for return to STFC in Swindon.
You can see more pictures from the ceremony here.
This event is the first stage in the withdrawal of the UK from the Northern Hemisphere. Our departure from Gemini means that the UK no longer has access to 8m class optical/near-IR telescopes in the north. Over the next several years, if STFC’s planned funding cuts to astronomical observing facilities go through, the UK will also lose UKIRT (see previous postings) and the JCMT on Hawaii, and with it the highly successful WFCAM IR survey camera and the unique and yet-to-be fully exploited SCUBA2 submm camera on JCMT. In two years time the northern hemisphere rump of UK astronomy will be a small partnership in the ING telescopes in La Palma, and how long this involvement will continue is far from clear.
This decision to ‘not compete’ in the north is a result of funding erosion over a number of years. Telescopes are being closed to protect the grants line and our subscription to ESO and the future southern hemisphere large projects EELT and SKA. Given the funding environment this isn’t an unreasonable decision, but the decisions to cut astronomy funding that have led to this conclusion are something that I, and all other UK astronomers, would argue with – both at STFC level and more broadly in BIS and the rest of government.
The departure from Gemini is the start of this round of closures. If the funding cuts continue, and we don’t see some restoration of the astronomy budget in the next few years, quite where they will end is unclear.