Astronomers in the United Kingdom are still reeling from the news, announced November 15th, that they're about to lose access to one of the "big guns" of observational astronomy. The nation's Science and Technology Facilities Council intends to withdraw from participating in Gemini Observatory, a pair of identical optical/infrared telescopes with 8-meter apertures. A final decision will be made by STFC on November 21st.
Under the terms of a seven-nation agreement in force through 2012, the UK has a 24% stake in Gemini, which it gained by committing about $70 million toward construction costs. But the STFC's anticipated budgetary shortfalls over the next few years precipitated this drastic action so that it can reinvest the planned savings in its "highest priority programmes."
Although British astronomers will still be able to plumb southern skies, thanks to UK membership in the European Southern Observatory, having no further access to Gemini North will be a painful loss. Michael Rowan-Robinson, president of the venerable Royal Astronomical Society, made it clear that astronomers there are not happy. "This decision is a serious mistake and a shock to all of us," he said.
The UK already operates a smaller facility atop Mauna Kea, the UK Infrared Telescope, but its aperture is just 3.8 meters — quite modest compared to the Gemini goliaths.
Meanwhile, Gemini's governing board will be looking to its other signatories to cover the withdrawn funding. Work on two major new instruments will continue, and the Board says it is "confident that the Gemini Observatory will continue to operate efficiently and productively."