Astronomy and Particle Physics

Written evidence submitted by Dr Don Carlos Abrams, Head of Engineering, Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes (APP 23)

 


Declaration of interests

1. I, Dr Don Carlos Abrams, declare that I have an interest in the Commons Select Committee inquiry as the Head of Engineering at the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes (ING) and as an employee of the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

Focus

2. I focus my response on the second issue raised by the Science and Technology Committee. This concerns the impact of withdrawal from international ground-based facilities (for example the Gemini Observatory and Isaac Newton Group of telescopes) on the UK’s research base and international reputation.

Response

3. The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council’s (PPARC) original vision to provide UK access to ground-based astronomical facilities exclusively via the European Southern Observatory (ESO) was a rational approach given the UK’s involvement in Gemini. However this strategic decision was taken without sufficient engagement with the UK astronomical community at a time when the UK’s involvement in Gemini was not under threat. Over the past couple of years, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) rectified the community engagement issue by actively seeking input from its communities. As a result of STFC’s consultation exercises it became apparent that the UK’s requirement for access to ground-based facilities could not be achieved, in its entirety, through the UK’s membership with ESO. Furthermore it has become clear that UK withdrawal from the abovementioned facilities will have a devastating impact on the future scientific output of UK astronomy primarily because a large portion of the sky will be unobservable whilst remaining scientifically important for certain areas of astronomy. This will have a significant impact on the UK’s ability to exploit fully certain space missions and large UK-led surveys that are currently underway. Evidently this will be detrimental to the UK’s scientific leadership.

4. It’s well understood that all facilities have a natural lifespan which is primarily dictated by the benefit-cost ratio. For the telescopes on La Palma, this ratio is particularly attractive when considered in the context of the UK’s operational commitment to the ING. It’s appreciated that access to the La Palma telescopes did not rank as high as access to some of the other ground-based facilities (STFC’s prioritised list). Nevertheless there was a clear indication, from the community, that access to the William Herschel Telescope (WHT) was essential for the future of UK astronomy. This telescope is particularly productive and access to the facility is highly desirable by astronomers worldwide and not just those from the UK. There’s a realisation that the funding required for the telescopes of tomorrow, such as the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), can only be acquired if the investments in older facilities are relinquished. Whilst this is accepted, it is critical for the future of UK astronomy that the process of withdrawing from telescope A to fund telescope B is thoroughly examined. This is particularly important when telescope A is a highly competitive scientific apparatus with running costs that are, for all intents and purposes, negligible when compared to the costs being invested in the E-ELT and the SKA.

5. The UK’s presence on La Palma is governed by a number of international agreements. In these agreements there is an understanding that the facilities on the island will remain operative for a given duration and, of course, partners are entitled to withdraw as per the details in the agreement. Nevertheless, the UK’s European reputation will be severely damaged if a unilateral withdrawal is sought without considering plausible alternatives for the future operation of the telescopes. The UK’s ING partners have expressed an interest for the continued operation of the ING. This interest is supported by the ASTRONET consortium, which was created by a group of European funding agencies with the remit to establish strategic plans for European astronomy.

6. La Palma is home to a number of UK-owned telescopes that are world renowned. Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) is currently installing a follow-up telescope to search for exo-solar planets. This work follows on from QUB’s world-renowned planet hunting programme in which 26 planets were identified by the SuperWASP telescope. This is another example of an impressive facility with a high benefit-cost ratio and the ability to develop an outstanding outreach programme. In addition to the search for exo-solar planets the fully autonomous telescope built by Liverpool John Moores University is playing an important role in robotic rapid response astronomy and in delivering astronomy to the classroom through their National School’s Observatory programme. Both of these facilities rely heavily on, and greatly benefit from, the UK’s presence on La Palma.

7. The UK’s Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes is in a distinctive position in that it actively provides a platform for the hands-on training of future UK astronomers. Prospective professional astronomers come to the ING to be trained in the practical aspects of astronomy. Furthermore, young astronomers, with no observing experience, can come to the telescopes and actively perform their own observations. This mode of hands-on observing is becoming rare and is seldom permitted on the larger facilities. The UK’s withdrawal from La Palma would significantly reduce these training opportunities for these young scientists.

8. The WHT has a long history of providing a fast-track test-bed environment for new instrumentation. Currently the telescope is being used to demonstrate an advanced observing technique for the future E-ELT. Quiet often the telescope is used to host instruments that are built by UK Universities. This provides an excellent opportunity for engineers and astronomers to work together whilst demonstrating UK leadership in astronomical developments.

Dr Don Carlos Abrams

Head of Engineering

Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes

16 February 2011