UK astronomers reach for the stars


UK astronomers are poised to gain access to some of the world`s most advanced telescopes and to significantly upgrade national facilities following decisions reached at the December Council meeting of The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council [PPARC], the UK`s strategic science investment agency.

PPARC has agreed a framework and schedule for joining the European Southern Observatory [ESO] that will lead to UK accession in mid 2002. This follows a similar decision taken at the ESO Council earlier this week. Membership of ESO will provide UK astronomers with access to the four 8.2-metre and several 1.8-metre telescopes that comprise the Very Large Telescope [VLT] located in Chile. The UK will also benefit from increased involvement in the design and construction of the Atacama Large Millimetre Array [ALMA], a network of 64 twelve-metre telescopes also sited in Chile, and play a defining role in the next generation of 100-metre Overwhelmingly Large [OWL] telescopes.

PPARC, in collaboration with other funding partners, will also upgrade the sensitivity of the MERLIN radio-telescope facility, a national world-class array of 7 high-resolution radio-imaging telescopes sited throughout the UK and including the 76-metre Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank. The major part of the increase in sensitivity will result from replacing the existing microwave links between the telescopes with a state of the art optical fibre network. The enhanced network, to be known as e-MERLIN, will ensure the facilities world-class performance well into this decade.

Commenting on the new initiatives Prof. Ian Halliday, Chief Executive of PPARC, said, " The United Kingdom already participates in Europe`s flagship particle physics and space science research programmes through membership of CERN and the European Space Agency. Both of which provide UK scientists with access to world-class facilities that, on a national basis alone, we could not begin to consider. Joining ESO consolidates this strategy for UK astronomers and endorses the recommendations of the `International

Perceptions of UK Research in Physics and Astronomy` which recommended joining ESO and upgrading MERLIN in order to redress the balance of UK ground based facilities compared to other European countries, Japan and the US".

The ESO Director General, Dr. Catherine Cesarsky, is `delighted that we have come this far after the lengthy negotiations needed to prepare properly the admission of another major European country to our organisation. When ESO was created nearly 40 years ago, the UK was planning its own facilities in the southern hemisphere, in collaboration with Australia, and decided not to join. However, the impressive scientific and technological advances since then and ESO`s emergence as a prime player on the European research scene have convinced our UK colleagues of the great advantages of presenting a united European face in astronomy through ESO`.

Sir Martin Rees, The Astronomer Royal, said," Joining ESO is good for UK science, and I think good for Europe as well. It offers us access to the VLT`s 8m class telescopes and restores the UK`s full competitiveness in optical astronomy. We`re now guaranteed full involvement in ALMA and in the next generation of giant optical instruments - projects that will be at the forefront of the subject in the next decade and beyond. Moreover, our commitment to ESO should enhance its chances of forging ahead of the US in these technically challenging and high profile scientific fields. UK membership of ESO is a significant and welcome outcome of the government`s increasing investment in science."

Sir Martin added," The upgrade to MERLIN will ensure our own national facility, centred around The Lovell telescope in the North West, will continue to deliver world class science."

Prof. Halliday added a further comment, " Joining ESO requires that PPARC make savings from its current ground based programme in order to supplement the significant contribution we received from government at the last Spending Review. We plan to achieve these savings by restructuring the current ground based astronomy programme. With a limited budget there will be inevitable reductions to certain facilities within the existing programme."

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