Astronomy and Particle Physics

Written evidence submitted by Dr. Marc Balcells (APP 24)


1. This evidence reflects my personal views and does not constitute the official view of the Isaac Newton Group of telescopes.

Declaration of interest

1. I am Director of ING, the Isaac Newton Group of telescopes, an establishment of the Science of Technology Facilities Council (STFC) on La Palma.

2. I was a resident astronomer at the Isaac Newton Group of telescopes in the period 1990-1992.

3. My research has benefited for over 20 years from the presence of UK telescopes on La Palma. I have directed or co-directed 8 PhD theses, two on UK Universities, based on data from ING telescopes. I currently co-direct a PhD student at a UK University.

4. I am a co-investigator in a large international consortium to study the Coma cluster of galaxies using the Hubble Space Telescope and ground-based observations, led by Prof. D. Carter from Liverpool John-Moores University.

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:

5. I believe that withdrawal from Hawaii and La Palma will have consequences in three areas, as summarized in the next paragraphs: science (paragraphs 6-11), technology (paragraph 12) and training (paragraph 13). I will focus on La Palma because this is what I know most about.

6. If UK withdraws from Hawaii and La Palma, UK astronomers will have access to only one optical-infrared observatory, located in the Paranal Observatory in Chile. ~40% of the sky is inaccessible from Paranal. This includes the Northern portions of our own Milky Way galaxy. The Gaia satellite, a cornerstone mission of the European Space Agency, promises to unravel the formation history of the Milky Way. Realising the full benefits of the Gaia investment needs ground-based observations of the entire sky. There is a consensus in Europe that the William Herschel telescope (WHT) on La Palma is the overall best telescope for this endeavour. Without the La Palma telescopes, the UK will miss a unique opportunity to exert international leadership in this exciting field.

7. The part of the Northern sky that remains inaccessible from Chile includes the Andromeda galaxy. UK astronomers, using ING telescopes, led the most important discoveries in the past two decades on the formation of Andromeda. La Palma, now hosting the Spanish-led 10-meter GTC telescope in addition to UK’s 4.2-meter William Herschel Telescope (WHT), offers an opportunity to remain leaders in this field, which will be missed if UK leaves La Palma.

8. The Northern sky also hosts the Coma cluster of galaxies, the only giant galaxy cluster that is sufficiently close to be studied in detail. The UK now leads a global collaboration to study Coma. Without ground based optical telescopes in the Northern Hemisphere the UK leadership position in this project will be compromised.

9. La Palma hosts other UK-led astronomical facilities. The novel robotic Liverpool Telescope is ideal for transient astronomy, key for the study of supernovae and gamma-ray bursts. The SuperWASP telescope of the Queens University Belfast is making major contributions to the discovery of extra-Solar planets. Operation of these two telescopes is facilitated by the presence of the ING on La Palma.

10. Consultation with ING’s user communities in 2009-2010 showed broad support for the continuation of ING. A recent European review of astronomy (ETSRC) sponsored by the main European funding agencies also emphasized the importance of the WHT in the European context, noting that a healthy community will always need mid-size telescopes alongside the larger telescopes. While smaller telescopes need to be closed down or passed on to new owners, the WHT is to many the best 4-metre telescope in the World. Our strategic planning ensures its continuing global competitiveness in the coming decade. The UK will lose out by closing down this facility in 2012.

11. The observatory at La Palma can provide the UK with a convenient platform for the access to the Northern Hemisphere, on a site that is among the best in the World. The observatory is a mature infrastructure that now hosts the Spanish-led GRANTECAN 10-metre telescope. There will be opportunities for the UK to obtain observing time on this larger facility.

12. Technology development for astronomy, in which the UK has an international reputation, will also suffer if ING closes down. The WHT is the only available facility where the adaptive-optics technologies needed for the future E-ELT can be prototyped. This is an area with major contribution from UK labs. Of equal importance for maintaining the strength of the UK technology base, the ING allows University-size teams to deploy with their own instrumentation on the WHT. Such capability, highly valued by UK astronomers, is not available elsewhere and certainly not at ESO. Pulling out of ING would impact technological creativity in UK Universities.

13. The ING contributes to training the next generation of astronomers. Astronomers rarely travel to the Chilean telescopes, which are far away, and where resident astronomers often carry out the observations. But UK astronomers come to ING. They gain a better understanding of telescopes, instrumentation and improve on their observing strategies. Additionally, the ING manages a world-renowned resident student program, providing hands-on training in the science, technology and management aspects of running an observatory. This contributes to educate the next generation of scientists that will manage and exploit the giant telescopes of the future. Without ING, British astronomers would miss an important component of their training.

Dr Marc Balcells

Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes

16 February 2011