Astronomy and Particle Physics

Written evidence submitted by the Astrophysics Research Institute, Liverpool John Moores University (APP 35)


1. The Astrophysics Research Institute (ARI) of Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) has a staff of 23 research astronomers, 16 PhD students and 12 technical and support staff. In an innovative collaborative arrangement it provides all the Astrophysics undergraduate degree teaching in a joint degree with Liverpool University. It also owns and operates the 2.0 metre Liverpool Telescope (LT) on La Palma, which is a unique robotic facility for time domain astrophysics for all UK astronomers. Funding for the operation of the LT is in part supplied by STFC. Use of the LT also naturally forms the principal focus of many of the astronomers within the ARI. Another unique feature of the ARI is its very strong outreach and education programme, where access to the LT is made available to schools across the UK via the National Schools Observatory (NSO) and also to students on specific modules of ARI’s large Distance Learning programme. Both the research within ARI (evidenced by for example the grant awarded within the last two weeks to Prof Carole Mundell by STFC for Gamma Ray Burst research using the LT) and its impact on the wider world (as evidenced by the recent HEFCE physics impact pilot [1] , where the ARI was awarded the highest score of all 13 physics departments entered, including some of those at the very top of the outcomes in the 2008 RAE in physics) are independently rated as of the highest international standard.

2. The particular concern of ARI is potential UK withdrawal from the La Palma site. For the UK, this hosts the STFC-owned and operated Isaac Newton Group of telescopes (including the William Herschel Telescope), SuperWASP (Wide Angle Search for Planets, owned and operated by Queens University Belfast) and the Liverpool Telescope (LT). Withdrawal would have a devastating effect on our ability to conduct world class research and outreach. In addition withdrawal from La Palma would also seriously affect the many users of these facilities in other departments across the UK.

The impact of withdrawal from international ground-based facilities…on the UK’s research base and international reputation

3. The overall strategic body for planning future astronomical developments across Europe is ASTRONET [2] which was created by the major European funding bodies and research organisations in astronomy, including STFC. ASTRONET carried out the most comprehensive consultation exercise ever undertaken by European astronomers to draw up a Science Vision encompassing the next 10-20 years. It then drew up a Roadmap which identified the highest priority facilities and other capabilities required by Europe to deliver the Science Vision. For example, in ground-based astronomy, the highest priority large projects were found to be the European Extremely Large Telescope and the Square Kilometre Array. The Roadmap also recognized the need for some restructuring of the organization of Northern Hemisphere 2-4m class facilities across the whole of Europe. It therefore commissioned a detailed review by the "European Telescope Strategic Review Committee" comprising 10 leading astronomers, chaired by Professor Janet Drew (Univ. Hertfordshire), with considerable community involvement. The report is available for download at and we commend it strongly to the committee as the most thorough and comprehensive independent review of the question of the future of the northern hemisphere 2-4m telescopes.

4.We quote from the very first paragraphs of the report:

"The panel wishes to note at the outset the general point that it became ever more vivid as it carried out its task that astronomy, as an observation-driven discipline, confronting phenomena ranging from the very bright (naked eye exo-planet hosts and astroseismological targets) to the faintest quasars at the edge of the accessible universe, continues to need access to telescopes in all size classes … In this respect, our subject is not at all like some other frontier disciplines such as particle physics where it is clear that advances demand a policy of complete facility replacement on decadal time scales. The 2-4m class telescopes support a wide range of research topics and it can indeed be argued that they can offer cutting edge science … It is also worth noting that there is a rising profile of interest in time domain astronomy, which may involve having the flexibility to respond quickly at [optical/infrared] wavelengths to triggers … Retaining a broad suite of efficient 2-4m telescopes accessible to Europe’s astronomers is, without any trace of doubt, crucial for Europe’s presence at the astronomical frontier."

5.The report then went on to identify five key capabilities which Europe needed to maintain or develop access to:

a) Wide-field multiplexed spectrograph on a 4-m telescope.

b) High resolution spectroscopy

c) Low resolution spectroscopy

d) Wide field imaging on 4-m telescopes

e) Time domain photometry

6.The committee identified the combined suite of La Palma 2-4m class telescopes (WHT, INT and LT) with their associated instrumentation as providing key UK capabilities in areas (a) (using the current WHT WYFFOS and the planned WEAVE), (c) (using the WHT ISIS, INT IDS and LT FrodoSpec) (d) (using the INT WFC) and (e) (using the LT RATCam, LT RISE and planned LT-IO). The UK has no involvement in (b), however this is reasonable – we don’t have to "do it all"! However it is clear that continued operation of the La Palma observatories will mean the UK is already well placed to lead many areas of world-leading astronomy for the next 10 years.

7. A particular interest of the ARI is of course the Liverpool Telescope. The LT was designed and built on Merseyside as the first professionally sized and equipped robotic telescope in the World. It remains the World’s largest fully autonomous robotic telescope with a full, and growing, suite of professional instruments. It was sited on La Palma in order to benefit from the operational and scientific synergies of being located with the Isaac Newton Group, which provides for example a generator-backed electrical supply and regular re-aluminization of our optical mirrors.

8. The Liverpool Telescope provides a unique UK facility because it is the only robotic telescope the UK has access to as of right, and is by far the most capable internationally. This means it can automatically react to changing events in the sky such as the explosions of Supernovae or Gamma Ray Bursts much faster than a conventional telescope (typically 3 minutes from the satellite-generated alert for a GRB for example). This allows unique, world-leading science to be done, as evidenced by the very high proportion of papers based on LT data that have been published in the highest impact journals Nature and Science (8.5%) rather than general astronomical journals. In this context, we note that the published shortest period between a satellite alert and a polarisation measurement being made for a GRB is 12,960s for the ESO VLTs compared to 160s for the Liverpool Telescope [3] . The LT work on GRBs was awarded the Times Higher Research Project of the Year (across the whole of science) in 2007.

9. As a northern hemisphere robotic telescope, the LT will be invaluable in the confirmation of new discoveries from the LOFAR radio telescope which is just beginning operation, also in the northern hemisphere. A major EU ERC grant has just been awarded to Southampton University to employ a large team (one staff member and 4 postdocs) there to detect transient phenomena in the LOFAR data and follow them up using the Liverpool Telescope. Similarly an STFC-funded group at Cambridge is responsible for detecting transients from the ESA Cornerstone satellite mission Gaia. As a satellite, Gaia will observe the whole sky and therefore northern hemisphere facilities such as the LT will remain vital to ensure that follow-up on Gaia’s discoveries is maximised.

10. The northern hemisphere remains a crucial hunting ground for the discovery of the first Earth-mass planet in another solar system. The UK SuperWASP project on La Palma detects more massive exo-planets, which are then monitored by the LT to search for evidence of smaller bodies in the system. The co-location of ING, SuperWASP and LT means all facilities collaborate in this effort – ING providing operational staff support to SuperWASP and LT holding spares in common with it. Expanding and deepening such collaboration is a natural way forward for the La Palma observatories to maintain science output in an era of decreasing overall funding.

11. The majority of the cost of the development and build of the LT was funded by LJMU through non-Research Council sources. The approximate current operating cost of the telescope is £650k/year. The LT currently receives an operations grant of around £500k/year from STFC. Further operational support comes from LJMU at a cost of £150k/year. In addition LJMU has continued to invest heavily in the development of new instrumentation for the telescope, for example a new combined optical-infrared camera ("IO") is being built with in-house funding of approximately £400k.

12. ARI recognizes the cost constraints imposed by the new financial environment and has put in place a programme of cost reductions achieved through a process of voluntary redundancies which will reduce the cost of operation of the telescope by 23% over the next two years, leading to an annual operating cost of around £500k/year. In addition we recognise it is unlikely that STFC will be able to cover that full operating cost after 2012. We have therefore begun a search for additional partners who can share operational costs, with the aim of significantly reducing the STFC contribution from 2012 onwards. Two partners have already agreed to participate, and negotiations are at present in progress with them. To allow this to succeed however, we need assurance from STFC that they can continue to provide operational support at a complementary level, thereby in turn giving assurance to our partners that they will be buying in to a facility with a long-term future.

Opportunities for, and threats to, outreach and inspiring the next generation of astronomers and particle physicists

13. Astronomical outreach and education has a very important role, not just in inspiring the next generation of astronomers, but much more widely in helping to fill the gap in future provision of experts in all areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). This was highlighted in the extensive study Pupils’ and Parents’ Views of the School Science Curriculum by Osbourne and Collins [4] in 2000 who concluded that "The one topic (amongst the sciences) that generated universal enthusiasm was any study of astronomy" – indeed they found this across age, gender and ethnic boundaries. A central role of astronomical outreach, therefore, is to take that ongoing enthusiasm and turn it into a wider enthusiasm for all STEM areas.

14. This is an area where the UK currently has a world-leading reputation. Projects such as the National Schools’ Observatory (NSO) and the Faulkes Telescope project, the success of International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009), the leading role in the creation of "Dark Skies Parks" and many more all show the success that the UK has in exploiting the draw of astronomy.

15. However, to retain that position (and ensure the benefits to all STEM subjects are not lost) then it is necessary to both continually innovate and develop new projects and ensure the support for the best existing ones. The situation of the NSO is a good example of the opportunities and problems currently facing both of these.

16. The NSO, which is run by the ARI, is designed to exploit access to the Liverpool Telescope to showcase both the scientific nature of astronomy, and the exciting technology that underpins it. To do this, an essential aspect of the design and operation of the project is to explicitly work alongside professional astronomers, using similar systems to obtain and analyse observations and facing similar challenges. The main role of the NSO, therefore, is to create and support tools that allow this for a wide range of age groups (KS2 to post-16), abilities (special needs through to the highest ability) and subject areas (not just science, but also mathematics, ICT, Design and Technology etc).

17. In all this, the linkage to world-leading research is clearly essential – it is very important not just that the telescope is very large and highly sophisticated, but that it is the same telescope that is being used by UK astronomers to make headline grabbing discoveries. That connection is what will inspire pupils to believe that they too could make such discoveries for themselves in the future.

18. The NSO currently has over 2000 schools registered. The majority of these are state-funded secondary schools with a national geographic spread. More than 24,000 observing requests have successfully been carried out for schools since the start of operations in late 2004, and the rate of requests is increasing rapidly (there were 7,000 requests successfully delivered to schools in 2010, and more than 1,400 in January 2011 alone). In addition to use by registered schools, the NSO website receives between 1 million and 2 million "visits" per year, the majority from within the UK. Drops in traffic during half-terms show that this is use by schools. Projects undertaken by pupils range from simple observations of planets or the moon, through to genuine research projects such as the study of asteroids, monitoring of distant supernovae and searching for extra-solar planets.

19. As well as direct benefits, the NSO provides a focus for other education and outreach. For example, as part of IYA2009, NSO astronomers gave inspirational presentations to about 15,000 KS4 pupils across the country. Teacher training is also an important component of our work, with hundreds of teachers each year being provided with CPD by NSO staff. In recent years this has often supported the provision of GCSE Astronomy in schools – one of the fastest growing qualifications in the UK and often taught in out-of-school clubs, which is another indication of the inspirational power of astronomy.

20. This is, therefore, a very successful and stimulating science education resource with strong links to current research. However, the funding of the project is an ongoing problem, something shared with much of the rest of astronomical outreach in the UK.

21. The initial setup of the NSO was supported by funding from PPARC and LJMU. Once established, funding was switched to a model where schools paid for an annual subscription. However, there were significant problems with this approach, both in terms of allocating appropriate funding within schools and administration at both ends. It should also be noted that, even with this funding from schools, it was only possible to support the direct costs associated with the NSO. The costs for the telescope time were absorbed by LJMU.

22. Direct funding at any significant level from central educational bodies (the Ministry, LEAs etc) has also not been forthcoming, as these bodies see such exploitation of research facilities as falling within the remit of the research councils. In contrast STFC (and previously PPARC), within limited funds for outreach activities, have perhaps inevitably given low priority to supporting ongoing projects – they are interested in developing new initiatives. Therefore the NSO, like many other outreach and educational projects, falls between two stools. External funding (whether from STFC, the EU, charities etc) requires new projects which, while worthwhile, cannot exist without the underlying support from the NSO staff, resources and network of teachers.

23. Currently the NSO itself is funded entirely by LJMU, who pay both for the running of the project (presently totalling around £150k/year) and in addition provide the telescope time from its reserved fraction. However, with the change in funding of universities, combined with the uncertainty in the continued operational support of the LT long-term from STFC, this is no longer a tenable situation. Alternative funding avenues are being explored (including commercial exploitation or extensive new developments into Europe) but even if successful these will, by their very nature, restrict or destroy the ability of the NSO to offer free access to those very schools that have the most to gain.

24. It should also be noted that an alternative model, should the LT not be available, would be to run the NSO via access to other telescopes. However, the NSO is designed to exploit the fully robotic nature of the LT, with its extensive instrumentation suite and location on an international observatory site. Moreover, if a suitable telescope could indeed be found, which currently would be outside STFC’s and ESO’s remit, such telescope time would need to be purchased which would clearly be far more expensive than "piggy-backing" on the UK research effort. Since the unique current dual use of the LT by UK astronomers and schools also has significant inspirational and educational advantages, this is very much the preferred approach.

25. This specific case of the NSO, therefore, highlights a significant problem in the current astronomy education and outreach effort. The UK has a world-leading role in developing exciting new links between research and education that are essential if we are to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. However, once those links have been developed and are shown to be effective, there are no clear routes to support their continuation and they may die. While such issues fall between the Research Councils and DfE, and neither are willing and/or able to take ownership, this unfortunate situation will continue.

Prepared by:

Prof Mike Bode (Director, ARI)

Prof Iain Steele (Director, Liverpool Telescope)

Dr Andrew Newsam (Director, NSO)

Prof Chris Collins (Professor of Cosmology)

Prof David Carter (Professor of Observational Astronomy)

Prof Carole Mundell (Professor of Extragalactic Astronomy)

16 February 2011

[1] (in Addendum)




[3] Steele et al., 2009, Nature 462, 767