Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction

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Hope for UKIRT?

As discussed earlier, the UK Infrared Telescope, UKIRT, on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, is under threat of closure thanks to funding cuts from STFC. In an unprecedented move, the Telescope Director, backed by the UKIRT board, released a prospectus in September essentially offering the telescope for sale as a going concern to anybody who would be able to pick up the funding baton that STFC is about to drop.

To me and others this seemed to be a desperation measure that was unlikely to succeed. Nothing like it had ever been tried before, and many of us were sadly expecting the bulldozers to move in late in 2013, since the rules are that a telescope that’s not in operation has to be removed from the mountain.

I am thus surprised and very pleased to be able to pass on news from UKIRT that there were twelve expressions of interest in taking over the telescope. Details cannot yet be released as the various bids have to be assessed for viability. Infrared astronomers across the world will be crossing their fingers that this process works, since UKIRT has been a hugely productive telescope over it’s 33 years of operation to date.

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VISTA and UKIRT: The New and promising vs The Old and successful

I was heartened to receive news that the VISTA telescope is doing so well that a special meeting is being organised in Edinburgh in the new year to celebrate its success. The telescope is described as one of ESO’s most productive in terms of reliability, data volume and data quality, and it has also been a huge success in terms of public outreach. A nice example of the kind of outreach image that VISTA is producing can be found here at APOD.

But my happiness that VISTA is doing well is accompanied by sadness that UKIRT, the UK Infrared Telescope, which is currently doing much the same job as VISTA but in the northern hemisphere, is about to be closed, and we’re just going through the assessment of proposals for what are likely to be the last set of observations that this telescope, a huge UK success story, will ever make.

VISTA itself has an interesting history. Originally funded as part of the UK’s Joint Infrastructure Fund in1999, it was later handed over to the European Southern Observatory as part of the cost of the UK joining ESO in 2002. VISTA is a survey telescope, aimed at imaging the southern sky to good resolution and sensitivity in five bands in the infrared. This data can be used for a wide range of science, ranging from looking for very low mass stars in the local neighbourhood of the Sun, to seeking out the most distant quasars in the universe. The VISTA name is also an excuse for a number of dreadful puns in the names of the various sub-surveys that make up the overall observing programme. These include the VISTA Hemisphere Survey (VHS) and the VISTA Deep Extragalactic Observations Survey (VIDEO).

Much of the science and technology of VISTA is based on the experience gained from a similar long term project to survey the northern sky in the infrared using UKIRT and the specially built WFCAM (Wide Field CAMera) instrument. This project is known as UKIDSS, and has been running since April 2005. It has already been hugely successful, producing over 300 scientific publications and leading to UKIRT setting new records in scientific productivity. One specific scientific highlight from UKIDSS, for example, is the discovery of the highest redshift quasar yet detected – I pick that because the study was led by a couple of people down the corridor from my office, but it is just one of very many great results from UKIDSS.

But the undoubted success of the project has not been enough to save UKIRT. In this age of austerity and cutting of funds for astrophysics (other areas of science in the UK, and even in the same research council, are doing rather better), UKIRT has been deemed too costly to keep open, even though it is still producing fantastic results, and it will take some time for VISTA to catch up. VISTA, of course, is protected from closure since it’s now part of the European Southern Observatory, an organisation the UK definitely doesn’t want to leave, and which will soon be nearly the only route to optical, infrared and mm/submm ground-based observing for UK astronomers. The forthcoming closure of UKIRT, and JCMT will leave the UK with just a part share of the La Palma observatory consisting of the WHT and INT (the latter a telescope that officialdom has been trying to kill off for many years, but which refuses to die). Other European countries, in stark contrast, continue to operate their own national facilities in the northern hemisphere.

It’s interesting to ponder what might have happened to VISTA if it had remained a UK project without being ceded to ESO. My suspicions are that we would not be looking forward to a celebration of its successes.

Meanwhile, if any of those reading this are interested in taking over a world class infrared observatory on the beautiful island of Hawaii, there is a prospectus available. Since this is a fire sale, the price will be very reasonable!

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A Merger Denied

I’m pleased, and not a little surprised, to read that the planned merger of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the National Oceanographic Centre in Southampton has been called off. The BAS has a proud tradition and an excellent science driven record including, among many other things, the discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole, which eventually led to the Montreal accords, generally recognised as the single most effective international environmental treaty to date. Would that we could have something similar on carbon dioxide production.

The idea that the BAS could retain its science-led tradition when moved to new premises and management, and when given an explicit instruction to help oil firms wishing to drill in polar regions is clearly nonsense, and the ensuing protests about the merger from scientific, environmental and political directions have clearly helped save them.

Even the name ‘British Antarctic Survey’ has a romantic ring to it. It brings visions of the heroic days of Scott and Shackleton, when the UK was a world leader in the exploration of the unknown. Work like the discovery of the ozone hole, and BAS’s current efforts to drill into lakes buried for millions of years beneath the surface of the ice, demonstrate that it is still, to quote Al Gore, ‘a globally significant institution’.

Needless to say there will still be battles, and while this one may have been won, there must still be questions over BAS’s long term future and independence, since it is clear that some people at NERC and elsewhere don’t think it should have one.

It’s good to see that science and scientific independence can beat political and financial expediency at least sometimes, but it is a bittersweet reminder to those of us in astronomy and particle physics who recall the shotgun wedding of our research council, PPARC, and the CCLRC (Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils) that formed STFC. This was a wheeze dreamt up by Gordon Brown, then Chancellor and soon-to-be Prime Minister, for reasons that nobody on the science side of PPARC has ever fully understood.

Unlike the BAS, PPARC didn’t have a political and environmentalist hinterland of support to defend it against this merger, though, since the idea originated from the top, that would have been unlikely to change things. The rest, as they say is history. There are conspiracy theories, incompetency theories, and the general financial doom of the times to explain it (Paul Crowther maintains an excellent record of all the comings and goings to this day), but the end result is that UK astronomy is now much less well funded than it was before the merger (the exact amount is subject to dispute discussion), and we are closing many of the uniquely British facilities that gave us an independent role in the field.

At this point I am unaware of any university astronomer who thinks the STFC merger was a good idea. If there are any, please speak up! I’d also be interested to hear from the particle physics side.

Sadly, unlike scientists, politicians and managers find it difficult to admit to being wrong, so it is unlikely that the clock will be turned back to allow astronomy and particle physics a resumed independent existence, separated from the very different resource demands of the likes of ISIS, DIAMOND, RAL and Daresbury. We’re still riding high in scientific terms, thanks to the long term technical and intellectual investments of the PPARC and, before that, SERC eras, but I can’t help but feel that the future will be one of managed decline, to being just one of the general European herd, and arguably one of the few without independent facilities of its own.

I’m glad, though a little envious, that BAS has yet to share a similar fate.