Astronomy and Particle Physics

Written evidence submitted by Prof Don Pollacco

Astrophysics Research Center

Queens University of Belfast (APP 05)

The delivery plan of the STFC currently envisages a withdrawal from Northern Hemisphere facilities over the next 1-2 years. While the majority of Astronomers would certainly claim that the highest priority must be to remain in ESO, in a recent survey for STFC ("Ground Based Facilities" chaired by M.Rowan-Robinson) the same Astronomers also expressed the view by a factor of 3 to 1, that we must place Northern Hemisphere telescope access as an extremely high priority. Furthermore, the withdrawal is motived solely by funding and not by science as:

1) While the universe may well be isotropic is true for cosmological projects (eg clusters of galaxies etc) this is not true when studying the local universe or, indeed, rare objects. Examples of this include nearby galaxies (there is nothing to rival the Andromeda Galaxy only visible from the Northern Hemisphere) and rare events such as Gamma Ray Bursters.

2) The UK’s leading position in the study of extra-solar planets will also be threatened. Here not only are the brightest examples only visible in the northern sky but NASA’s Kepler mission is currently surveying a single patch of sky only visible from northern latitude’s. Kepler will find the first (few) examples of Earth like planets and only those with facilities in the northern hemisphere will be in a position to study them. Withdrawal from Northern Hemisphere sites will effectively end our contribution in this exciting area.

3) The UK is currently leading in the detection of large planets around bright stars thanks largely to the UK’s SuperWASP experiment (Canary Islands) and followup observations from the Liverpool Telescope and William Herschel Telescope of the Isaac Newton Group (both facilities on La Palma, Canary Islands).

4) Instrumentation. The current facilities are ideal for groups to develop technology in challenging environments. So for example at the WHT, some of the most important scientific advances have stemmed from instrumental developments from small institutes (eg SARON, PNS, UltraCAM etc). each of these have been transformational in their respective subject areas (each opening a new window on their science areas). These developments would be difficult or impossible in the ESO environment.

5) Surveys. The UK has invested significant money in surveys some of which are only of the northern sky (eg the radio LOFAR survey which although a Dutch led project now has significant UK investment through our Universities). Further more, the interpretation of space data and in particular that from our ESA investment is at risk. The best example of this is the GAIA mission (to be launched in 2012) which will map the entire sky and is scientifically aimed at understanding our galaxy’s structure and evolution (the northern sky will be important to reach this aim).

6) Investment. Since the 1980’s has the UK, through SERC, PPARC and now STFC , has been investing >£2M/yr in the observatory infrastructure. The scientific importance of staying in the north has not lessened in this time.

Vested interests. I am the manager of the SuperWASP experiment on La Palma and have made significant use of the telescopes in the Canary Islands (and ESO for that matter).

Prof Don Pollacco
Astrophysics Research Center
Queens University of Belfast

14 February 2011