Astronomy and Particle Physics

Written evidence submitted by Dr Gavin Ramsay, Chairman, UK ING Panel for the Allocation of Telescope Time (APP 32)

This submission concern’s the future of the UK membership of the Isaac Newton Group (ING) on the island of La Palma in the Canaries. The ING is composed of the William Herschel Telescope (WHT) and the Isaac Newton Telescope (INT). The ING costs the UK around £1.1M per year. To withdraw from a facility costing a relatively small amount of money would be extremely short sighted and have very negative consequences.

1. The UK currently has an allocation of ~100 nights per year on both the WHT and INT. Astronomers who want to use these telescopes for a project have to prepare a competitive case. The panel, of which I chair, then ranks these proposals according to scientific merit. Since many more astronomers want time on the telescopes than there is available, typically only one in three get approved. It is therefore not possible to award telescope time to some research projects which are of high quality.

2. The WHT has a diverse and world class suite of instruments which enables UK astronomers to conduct projects which would not be possible if the UK withdrew from the ING. In particular, ISIS is one of the world’s most efficient spectrographs which is used to study objects as diverse as Gamma-ray bursts, Earth impacting asteroids and compact binary systems.

3. All-sky surveys are mapping the sky using a range of strategies and wavebands. The UK has for many years been a world leader in this field. However, for the projects to be successful, followup observations of sources discovered during these surveys are an essential component to their success and their brightness will be well matched to the WHT. In order that the UK is not largely excluded from followup projects of northern sky surveys, my panel considers that access to both the northern and southern hemispheres, is an absolute requirement.

4. Many astrophysical objects vary in their apparent brightness. By studying them in detail we can determine what powers them and understand the underlying physical processes. However, this requires multiple observations of the same source (which can be moderately bright). By their very nature these observations are unlikely to be carried out on an `Extremely Large Telescope’, which is likely to be dominated by a relatively small number of multi-national `mega' projects. The UK has international leadership role in `time domain' astrophysics. For it to remain so, access to telescopes such as the WHT and INT is essential.

5. STFC rightly stresses the importance of students and junior post-docs receiving appropriate training. The WHT and INT have proved to be excellent facilities to train students in obtaining scientific observations. These skills are valuable even if the student goes on to a career outside astrophysics. Today, students rarely travel to 8m telescopes for training and such opportunities will no doubt be even rarer in the ELT era.

6. In short, we believe that access to the WHT and INT remains essential to the broad UK astronomical community to help answer the key science questions of the age.

Dr Gavin Ramsay


UK ING Panel for the Allocation of Telescope Time

11 February 2011