Faced with too many telescopes and too little funding, U.K. officials have decided to close the country's two observatories atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii.
Today officials at the United Kingdom's Science and Technology Facilities Council announced their decision to stop funding two of the oldest observatories atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Unless some other organization takes over their operation, the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) will cease operations in September 2013 and the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope will close a year later.
It's becoming an all-too-common scenario in an era of diminished priorities and funding for scientific endeavors. The U.K. has lined up to participate in megaprojects like the ALMA radio array in Chile, the Square Kilometer Array, and the hoped-for European Extremely Large Telescope. But those buy-ins leave little cash to maintain the country's older but still productive facilities in Hawaii and the Canary Islands.
The STFC's decision spares the three telescopes of the Isaac Newton Group on La Palma. But UKIRT and JCMT on Mauna Kea's summit, along with the Joint Astronomy Centre in Hilo that manages them, didn't make the cut. They will either be transferred to alternate operators or decommissioned once their existing observation projects end.
The news wasn't unexpected, as STFC signaled its intentions in late 2009. But it's still a sad turn of events that has not been received well by astronomers. For UKIRT, in particular, the early closure will bring an abrupt end to a deep infrared survey that has been ongoing since 2005. Members of the UKIRT board were quick to express their disappointment, noting that the survey work could have continued for an additional year for only about $150,000. "UKIRT's productivity is at an all-time high," the board asserts, "with the number of papers published in 2011 amongst the highest of any telescope in the world."
With an aperture of 12.5 feet (3.8 m), UKIRT ranks as the world's second largest telescope dedicated solely to infrared observations (surpassed only by the recently built VISTA telescope in Chile). It was built in the late 1970s and has been operated remotely from Hilo (no observers present) for more than a year.
The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope has a primary mirror 49 feet (15 m) across, making it the largest telescope optimized for observing at submillimeter (far-infrared to microwave) wavelengths. Built by the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands, JCMT saw first light in 1987.
What's transpiring in the U.K. could well be a harbinger of equally unwelcome events on this side of the Atlantic. A panel of U.S. astronomers has just about concluded a "portfolio review" for the National Science Foundation, and when the group releases its findings in a few months, many expect that legendary facilities such as Kitt Peak National Observatory might likewise face closure.