Astronomy and Particle Physics

Written evidence submitted by Janet Drew, Professor of Astronomy, and Director of the Centre for Astrophysics Research, STRI, University of Hertfordshire (APP 29)

Comment on: 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.

I write my remarks having recently completed a task for an EU-funded project, Astronet, that works as a policy forum for European Astronomy, in which I chaired a European panel of astronomers, asked to assess the role for the suite of 2-4 metre aperture optical/infrared telescopes, currently funded by Europe’s national agencies, over the next decade – with a view to identifying what their science role might be and the ways in which that might be met when it is widely recognised that running costs need to be ‘optimised’ (i.e. minimised), in order to safeguard the overall world competitiveness and excellence of our science. We took evidence from the European community of research astronomers, and also from the directors of the telescopes under review.

I enclose a copy of the report of this panel, the European Telescopes Strategic Review Committee (ETSRC), with the hardcopy of the letter, and note it is accessible via the following link

We reported in the spring of 2010, and the report’s relevance to your enquiry is that we considered the standing of both the La Palma telescopes (ING, and Liverpool Telescope) and UKIRT in Hawaii that are UK builds and continue to receive UK funding, alongside telescopes of similar scale associated with and paid for by Germany, Italy, France, the Nordic countries, and Spain. We also considered ESO’s La Silla telescopes, and VISTA.

Two things emerged very strongly from this exercise.

First, there continues to be a very broad menu of cutting-edge astronomy that needs access to the 2- and 4-metre class telescopes and that these are typically of three kinds: critical follow-up in both the northern and southern hemisphere on a wide variety of (relatively highly expensive) space observatories, without which the space data could not be exploited adequately; time-domain astronomy needing either rapid access to the sky, or sustained access over months/years; and finally, wide-field astronomy. A technical point to make regarding this last need is that the bigger a telescope’s aperture is, the smaller is its natural field of view – so for efficient coverage of large sky areas either for imaging or massive-multiplex spectroscopy, the 2-4m aperture telescopes are irreplaceable. The next generation survey telescopes in planning elsewhere in the world are in this class.

Second, despite the fact that only 2 members of the 10-strong panel were UK scientists, it became very clear as it deliberated, that the UK’s 4-metre class telescopes (William Herschel Telescope, UKIRT, VISTA) are held in particularly high regard, internationally. Indeed there was great concern at the time we were meeting that the signalled intention of STFC was to truncate the unique infrared surveying activity of UKIRT in 2012, sacrificing a world lead, and that also a pull-out from the Isaac Newton Group was envisaged on a similar timescale. Regarding the latter, it has been striking that one of our major recommendations -- that Europe needs to invest in a massive-multiplex wide-field fibre spectrograph to support, especially, the upcoming ESA Gaia mission – is already taking shape. It was clear to us, and the argument is accepted, that the telescope best suited to it is the ING’s William Herschel. This project in the planning is pulling in a number of international partners, including France, who now prefer this option over building one for the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. What a waste if the UK, who created the William Herschel, could have no part in its further use, with a state-of-the-art instrument. Is all the investment of the past just to be handed over to our European colleagues in a gift of future science leadership?

It never was the case that a pull-out from either the ING or UKIRT was seen as scientifically- justified, and in recent times with the shifting frontiers of our subject (e.g. the huge international activity searching for and characterising exo-planets which deals in observations of bright stars), this is even less the case. Presently, this concept lies mainly with the current STFC CEO. To the community, ‘abandoning the island sites’ has always appeared to have been about budgets.

Speaking now, as a member of the UK astronomical community – in which I have worked for 30 years – it has long been accepted that the operation models of smaller telescopes needs to change, allowing significant cost reductions, as newer/larger facilities are invested in. On the whole PPARC/STFC middle management have handled this process quite well. And indeed the annual spend on the 2-4m telescopes has dropped dramatically, quite rightly starting from the time the UK became a member of ESO. Necessary adjustments have occurred and will continue – the next steps, towards much more specialisation of role by the 2-4m telescopes, were a part of what was considered and endorsed by the Astronet ETSRC panel. One way to achieve this, in respect of La Palma where there is obvious opportunity, would be to merge the operations of all the night-time telescopes. This has been an obvious way forward for some time, including to some visiting international panels (going back over the decade), but now the spirit to do this is relatively strong, even if the politics remain complex.

Janet Drew

Professor of Astronomy,

and Director of the Centre for Astrophysics Research


University of Hertfordshire

15 February 2011