Written evidence submitted by the Gemini
UK National Time Allocation Committee (NTAC) (APP 27)|
UK WITHDRAWAL FROM
I am a Reader in Cosmology in the School of Physics
and Astronomy at the University of Birmingham, supported by a
University Research Fellowship from the Royal Society (2005-13).
In the past decade I have used most of the 8-metre and 10-metre
(8-m and 10-m) class optical/near-infrared telescopes on Earth
to further my research. I therefore have a broad perspective
on the use of large international ground-based observing facilities.
My co-signatories and I currently comprise the Gemini
UK National Time Allocation Committee (NTAC) and therefore have
the clearest scientific view of UK demand for observing time on
the Gemini North and South (GN and GS) 8-m class telescopes.
We are responsible for the twice-yearly peer review of proposals
for observing time submitted by members of the UK community.
As NTAC Chair I also represent the UK on the International Time
Allocation Committee (ITAC) that is responsible for constructing
the Gemini science program from the merged science rankings of
the respective partners.
Our submission to the House of Commons Science and
Technology Committee's inquiry concentrates on the second item
listed in the call for evidence:
"2. 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
Our view, as expressed in this submission, may be
summarized as follows:
- access to international northern 8-m class telescopes
is essential to support the UK's research base;
- the Gemini Observatory has matured into an efficient
operation with high global impact;
- withdrawal from Gemini represents poor value
for money on the UK's investment to date; and
- the most cost effective and scientifically productive
way forward is to remain a member of the Gemini partnership post-2012.
Dr. Graham P Smith
Chair of Gemini UK NTAC, 2010-12
Co-signatories (Members of Gemini UK NTAC):
Dr. Nate Bastian
University of Exeter
Dr. Boris Gaensicke
University of Warwick
Dr. Duncan Farrah
University of Sussex
Dr. Rubina Kotak
Queens University of Belfast
Dr. Russell Smith
Dr. Serena Viti
University College London
16 February 2011
1.1 The global impact of UK astronomy is underwritten
by access to multi-wavelength, multi-hemisphere observations from
both space and ground. UK astronomers are currently leading key
projects with truly global impact that are reliant on ground-based
observations of faint objects first identified in space-based
observations (see paragraphs A1 & A2). These space-based
observations are intrinsically "all-sky". Global leadership
therefore requires access to multi-hemisphere ground-based 8-m
1.2 The Gemini/Subaru Exchange Program is playing
a key role in sustaining the global impact of the UK's research
base (see paragraph A3). This program allows UK astronomers to
bid for observing time on Japan's Subaru telescope through the
Gemini UK NTAC. The key attraction for UK astronomers is Subaru's
wide-field capabilities that are unique among 8-metre class telescopes.
This Gemini-enabled access to Subaru is of key strategic importance
to UK astronomy, and demonstrates the flexible telescope access
available to Gemini partners.
2.1 In the last five years the number of peer-reviewed
articles based on Gemini observations has roughly doubled, and
the fraction of those lead by a UK astronomer has grown from approximately
10% to 20%. The impact of peer-reviewed articles based on Gemini
observations is comparable, on average, with other 8-m class telescopes,
ie Magellan, Subaru, and the European Southern Observatory's (ESO's)
Very Large Telescopes (VLTs). In individual years the impact
of Gemini publications can rival that of the 10-m Keck telescopes
(see table in paragraph A4).
2.2 These statistics on the output from the Gemini
Observatory confirm that, a decade after science observations
began, Gemini has reached maturity as an international scientific
facility. This has in part been enabled by the development and
refinement of the observatory's system of queue observing, whereby
observatory staff perform the observations on behalf of the respective
proposal teams when the sky conditions are optimally matched to
those required by the science goals.
3.1 The UK's investment in Gemini to date has
therefore helped to deliver a state of the art international research
facility that offers astronomers the ability to observe in both
Northern and Southern hemispheres. The teething problems of the
first decade of operation are now resolved, and the coming decade
promises great scientific rewards for members of the Gemini partnership.
There is therefore a prima facie case that UK withdrawal from
Gemini will waste the funds that the UK has invested in bringing
the observatory to its current level of operational maturity and
3.2 UK demand for observing time on the Gemini
telescopes is comparable with that for time on other 8-m class
telescopes, including ESO's VLTs. Moreover, UK demand surges
when new instruments are commissioned - ie installed on the telescopes.
We have seen this recently in UK NTAC meetings, with a crop of
high quality proposals for observations with the new red-sensitive
GMOS-N instrument in late 2010 and with GNIRS in 2011.
3.3 UK withdrawal from Gemini would further undermine
value for money for the UK because several instruments in which
the UK has invested are not yet available for use by the community.
This investment in novel instruments - in particular FLAMINGOS-2
and MCAO - would therefore be wasted. It is also of great significance
that ESO has no plans to make instruments comparable with FLAMINGOS-2
and MCAO available to the ESO community, of which the UK is part
(see also paragraph A5).
4.1 Given the UK's investment to date, and the
current operational maturity and scientific impact of Gemini,
it is clear that the most cost effective way to sustain the UK's
research base in relation to scientific exploitation of space-based
discoveries is to remain a member of the Gemini partnership.
4.2 However in the current economic climate,
a reduced partner share in the range 10-15% (the UK is currently
a 24% partner) would help to reduce the burden on the public purse
whilst providing sufficient telescope time for a top slice of
world-class UK science to be supported. This assumes that we
would have access to both GN and GS, and that the Gemini/Subaru
exchange program would continue.
4.3 Gemini partners are also free to exchange
time with other nations independently of the formal time exchange
programs. For example, the same developments in ground-based
astronomy in the southern hemisphere (eg SKA, LSST, ALMA) that
motivate some to argue for concentrating UK optical/near-infrared
observing resources on ESO will likely increase the enthusiasm
of (for example) Japan to trade Subaru time in exchange for GS
time. This would allow us to balance UK 8-metre observing time
between the hemispheres, at a cost of £2-3million per year
(assuming a 10-15% share of Gemini).
4.4 Replacing UK access to Gemini with (for example)
access to the 10-m Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC) on La Palma
would set UK astronomy back a decade. This is because GTC is
at a stage of development comparable with the Gemini telescopes
a decade ago. Recovery from this setback would take many years,
and would require significant financial and intellectual investment
from the UK in developing the operation of GTC and the suite of
instruments available on GTC.
All signatories to this evidence are regular users
of 8-m class telescopes including all of Gemini, VLT, and Subaru.
A1 As a UK astronomer Professor Nial Tanvir's
access to the Gemini-North telescope in Hawaii was essential to
his publication in Nature of the most distant known Gamma Ray
A2 UK astronomers lead eight of the eighteen
extragalactic/cosmology Key Programs on the Herschel Space Observatory,
including the largest Key Program called "HerMES" (PI:
Professor Seb Oliver). In 2011A follow-up ground-based observations
of galaxies discovered with Herschel accounted for 10% of the
total UK demand for Gemini observing time reviewed by the UK NTAC
- ie a disproportionately large fraction of the total demand.
This large fraction will likely increase in future semesters.
A3 Professor Chris Collins published important
results on the evolution of the most massive galaxies in the universe
in Nature, based on Subaru observations conducted thanks to the
Gemini/Subaru Exchange Program (http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2009Natur.458..603C).
More generally, UK demand for observing time on Subaru has recently
doubled - the average ranking of these proposals is in the 2nd
quartile of all proposals that we receive - ie they are stronger
than the average proposal.
A4 The impact of large ground-based telescopes
is summarized in the following table. Impact is defined as the
number of citations to articles that publish data from each observatory,
normalized by the median number of citations earned by articles
in the Astronomical Journal. On average over the last five years
for which data are available, Gemini has been competitive with
comparable 8-m class telescopes, ie VLT, Subaru, and Magellan.
In individual years it has matched the performance of the pre-eminent
Keck 10-m telescopes (ie 2006).
Source: Compiled by Gemini Observatory, based on publication
lists provided by the respective observatories.
A5 Gemini has a distinctive instrumentation strategy
that will deliver technology on GS that ESO has no plans to deliver.
Most notably, FLAMINGOS-2 will be the only near-infrared multi-object
spectrograph in the southern hemisphere. For example, FLAMINGOS-2
and MOSFIRE on Keck will revolutionize studies of cosmic re-ionization
at redshifts of 7<z<10. Participation in Gemini post-2012
would therefore promise world-leading positions for UK astronomers,
for example, directly challenging colleagues in California who
have direct access to the Keck telescopes in the northern hemisphere.
MCAO will also shortly be a unique facility, because ESO has
decided not to offer their Multi-conjugate AO Demonstrator (MAD)
to the ESO community. MCAO will deliver near-infrared imaging
at a spatial resolution and across fields of view comparable to
the new WFC3 camera on the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). Naturally
MCAO will not achieve the sensitivity of HST/WFC3, however this
unique device will revolutionize ground-based near-infrared astronomy.
The scientific potential of access to these instruments on GS
is therefore huge and, most importantly, unique in the southern