Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction

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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!