Telescope Tensions

I may be whingeing about the weather, but I sure ain’t whingeing about UKIRT. Its a world beating facility, and runs more smoothly than other telescope I know. This wasn’t the case when I first started using UKIRT … shows you what you can do with thirty years to nail this stuff down. Well… dedicated and talented staff kinda help too 🙂

In last year’s crisis, UKIRT was under threat. Luckily, the community response was very impressive. As a result, UKIRT is guaranteed at the very least to finish UKIDSS. Now the feeling of crisis looms again. As Peter C has described, STFC’s problems have deepened because of exchange rate problems, and we are all waiting for the budget with our breath held.

Meanwhile, rumours abound of a review of ground-based facilities by STFC. (OK I know thats only one rumour, but Tom Shanks can abound all by himself I reckon.) This should be able to dovetail nicely with the US decadal survey, as discussed in an earlier post. It needs to report well before November, as thats when the crucial Gemini Board meeting is … However, so far there seems to be no sign of terms of reference appearing on the STFC web site. By the way, isn’t it a very pretty and professional looking web site ?

The GB review may be an opportunity to review priorities for future things, but of course everybody is assuming its a game of musical chairs. Oh look ! There’s a news item about Merlin being a great success ! Oh and a lovely new brown dwarf result from UKIDSS, folllowed up by observations on Gemini !!

Oh dear. Is this going to get a tad tense over the coming months ?

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15 Responses to Telescope Tensions

  1. Stuart says:

    Don’t forget the William Herschel Telescope potentially having an impact on climate models: http://www.scitech.ac.uk/PMC/PRel/STFC/ClimateModels.aspx

  2. There is always a balance to be drawn between investing in new instruments and techniques, and the cost implications for funding new initiatives. Lets ignore the obvious associations with MoonLITE, where you would be hard pressed to find anyone outside of MSSL or STFC who really thought this was the best way to spend millions of millions of pounds that have not properly been subject to peer review, – and has been said to be an aberration to the standards that are normally expected of funding agencies. The UK, and many other countries as well, have been very bad in failing to take hard decisions to close down telescopes that are useful, but not necessarily world leading. We all know the backdrop that is cited – international treaties, costs of returning the site to its original condition, selling the telescope – angry user community – the list of ways to delay or block closing down instruments or observatories is endless, and has bedevilled past reviews that have had the best of intentions in balancing the budget against a forward looking investment cycle.

    Against this, many of these telescopes produce excellent science, supporting niche areas of astrophysics very well – and naturally astronomers fight bitter rear guard actions to keep their favourite facility running. Otherwise, how do we reinvest what are undoubtedly insufficient, and in reality likely to dwindle even further as STFC money is diverted into ESA’s Human Space Programme in the coming few years. Lets assume that the budget is as positive as expected, and that in the CSR, STFC gets what is probably an optimistic, flat cash settlement, and again that not too much money gets diverted into the human space programme. Then we have the STFC black hole of money that was not properly budgeted in the last round of cuts that is going to severely reduce even a flat cash settlement.

    So, somewhere hard decisions and priorities have to be taken for the long term health and vitality of a community that needs to continually develop innovative new ways to enable it to produce the paradigm setting science, and to challenge the world class instrumentalists that the country has excelled in for decades. Whether the established facilities survive is a sensitive balance between maintaining the old, and bringing forward the new. Reviews are also good times for the views of the many to be articulated, although as we have seen in the recent past, the views of the many were ignored, and little change happened in an area that many will be familiar with. So pragmatically I’m not sure that in reality the views of the many will be taken much notice off, other than to serve as evidence that ‘we consulted’. However, I take heart that even the dinosaurs ceased to exist after a few years as the dominant species of their time, and it is reputed that life evolved for the better. One can therefore in a positive way hope that the same might happen again (to our telescopes of course … !).

  3. andyxl says:

    Dear Dr Tensions : the GB review is certainly going to have a very tough job, for just the reasons you say. I can feel this tension even within myself : there are exciting things I would like to start as well things I want to finish. The only place I’d take issue with you is where you say

    “Against this, many of these telescopes produce excellent science, supporting niche areas of astrophysics very well”

    In fact, the at-risk facilities are very general purpose serving broad communities, whereas some of the expensive new things are much more focused.

  4. John Peacock says:

    Hello Andy,

    Amusing that after several years in hibernation, both you and I should now be observing again at the same time. I’m at the AAT; this (IMHO) remains a world-class facility, where 2dF/AAOmega is an unmatched tool for wide-field spectroscopic surveys. I don’t need to remind you (but I will anyway) that the UK is about to cease membership, so that from 2010 the AAT will be purely an Australian facility.

    This however does not contradict Dr T’s comments about the UK being bad at closing things, because I think she/he is referring to a process where we rank the telescopes on a scientific basis, and yet evade the rational conclusion that some should close, on the basis of special interests or just sentiment. None of this applies here: the decision to leave the AAT was presented to the community as a fait accompli, as part of the price of joining ESO.

    Now, I’m not saying that we should never have joined ESO (although an interesting item for debate elsewhere is whether the UK has achieved the prominence and leadership within ESO that it would have regarded as its birthright before entry) – but it still rankles that the AAT was never given a chance to compete in an open review. The argument for closure is the crap site; the argument against is that the site was always inferior, and yet the sheer innovation of the organisation consistently overcame that to deliver arguably the UK’s highest impact astronomy over several decades (for relatively little cost). It looks like 2dFGRS will end up being the high-water mark of that history – but that doesn’t validate the decision to leave, and merely means that the UK will cut itself off from the next set of AAT triumphs (such as Joss Bland-Hawthorn’s OH-suppressing fibres).

  5. Richard Wade says:

    John
    While I agree with almost everything you say, I must remind you that it was the Ward Panel that recommended withdrawal from the AAT as part of the package of measure proposed to cover the costs of ESO. Not sure whether you would count that as an open review, perhaps Martin could comment (if he is a visitor to these pages).

  6. Tom Shanks says:

    I remember Ian Corbett saying that UK AAT time share would be maintained by AAO winning UK instrument grants but that certainly hasn’t happened. Meanwhile the US and the rest of the world is overtaking us in terms of cosmological redshift surveys with BOSS, BigBOSS (see http://arxiv.org/pdf/0904.0468) etc. The UK needs continuing access to 2dF as JAP says and then we also need access to upgraded and updated high multiplex wide-field spectrographs. ESO are moving to a call for proposals for wide-field spectrographs in the next few weeks but there is also a need for interim instruments on a shorter timescale at our presently available 4-m telescopes, some of which have appropriately wide fields. This would be relatively cheap at least.

    Cheap options may be needed given the gloomy rumours currently circulating at NAM/JENAM – STFC may be in the red to the tune of >~ 70m GBP (just my estimate!) mainly due to currency fluctuations – ie probably worse state than at last crisis. Things seem to be moving fast so that there even seems to be uncertainty whether the new ground-based review will actually take place. Only hope is for some fiscal stimulus in budget – but even here the emphasis in Lord Drayson’s speech was mainly on space. We could use that (EUCLID?) but space projects take 10 years and we need something earlier. The fiscal stimulus assumption is, of course, optimistic!

  7. Steve W says:

    Tom – putting those two threads together, at the time VISTA funding was secured it was seen by many (I can name at least two people) as a replacement for the AAT, and indeed the suggestion was made (but not taken up) that in the design phase consideration should be given to the possibility of wide-field spectroscopy in the future. Then you could have the best of both worlds – AAO instrumentation at an excellent site.

  8. Martin Ward says:

    Dear all

    A day or so ago Richard Wade mentioned the so-called “Ward panel” report of many years ago (thanks to Tom Shanks for telling me). Actually I’m not a regular reader of this formum (for generic reasons associated with the shortness of life etc…).
    However, I can indeed confirm his claim that a recommendation to withdraw UK financial support from the AAT was contained in that report. This was to be a phased process, and we recommended that links be maintained on the instrumentation side with the AAO group. In practice of course, the implementation of recommendations seldom follow a smooth course, and alternative scenarios often emerge as a result of focussing minds on an unpalitable option. The inevitable result is that we seldom make the savings originally predicted. This was managable in “the good ole days” but now things are very different…

    postscript: as far as I can recall the UK has withdrawn completely from some ground-based telescopes eg. the Egyptian 74″ and the Spanish 1m Stephenson telescope!

  9. John Peacock says:

    Martin. I remember such a panel – but how widely did it take input? I’m pretty sure there was no “consultation” such as we have rightly demanded from STFC in the current crisis (which perhaps indicates that things were not always as wonderful in the good old days as we have liked to imply when indulging in STFC-bashing). I suspect that the withdrawal from the AAT was heavily influenced by Ian Corbett planning how to balance the books post-ESO. And Corbett also pulled the strings the other way: VISTA was very much his baby. He saw an opportunity to extract some one-off money from the treasury, and the machine was funded before many people knew about it. I remember being in a meeting of the AAT Board in either 96 or 97: Ian’s phone rang – and following a short conversation he said, “well guys, you’ve got yourselves a new 4m survey telescope”. But I don’t recall discussions about spectra with VISTA until the recent meetings in which ESO realised it needed something like WFMOS, but wasn’t willing to modify a VLT top end.

  10. andyxl says:

    Martin – and of course the 60inch in Tenerife, and the 1m JKT. In other words, during the 4m era, we did in fact gradually close down / withdraw from smaller/older facilities. Doing the same thing to 4m telescopes in the 8m era is happening but slowly; and of course you only really save money by withdrawing from a site rather than a facility, so whats most cost-effective is not always obvious (you think I am talking about La Palma or JAC, but how about Diamond/SSRS/Daresbury etc?)

  11. Tom Shanks says:

    Steve – yes, am very keen to pursue the VISTA option for high multiplex spectroscopy, as discussed on this blog recently. But the timescale is going to be 5-7 years even if the proposal gets accepted. In the shorter term, there may also be possibilities to use existing, available, UK 4-m wide-field telescopes in the same way BigBOSS is proposing to use the KPNO 4-m for high multiplex MOS. All these relatively cheap options should also be considered.

  12. Rob Ivison says:

    The possibility of exploring an AAO/ESO timesharing agreement was raised at today’s STC meeting in Garching. An interesting short-term option, perhaps.

    An ESO call for (very) large (>>LP) “Public” spectroscopy programmes with FLAMES and the upgraded VIMOS (mid-2010 with 4 new red-sensitive chips and some other improvements) is also envisaged, perhaps this year.

    Options for VISTA spectroscopy are not viewed as dead within ESO, but you hear sharp intakes of breath around the council room when it is mentioned. Wide-field options for La Silla telescopes come in the same category.

  13. Tom Shanks says:

    Rob – I assume that the intake of breath was even sharper for VLT options for wide-field spectroscopy? Indeed, senior ESO people at JENAM were saying that the VISTA option for high multiplex MOS was being viewed as a serious contender by ESO – although VISTA not yet being an ESO telescope may provide initial obstacle to progress.

    News from the RAS Community Forum meeting at NAM – Keith Mason said that DIUS had helped with exchange rate issue but the deficit was still 10m GBP in the current financial year due to “second order effects”. Would be dealt with by “slowing projects.” New ground-based review would happen and initially report by October. Also a longer term 10-year review would be put in place – community to be consulted via web-page. Not clear how other areas would be similarly reviewed/reprioritised. Keith also said he had “no idea” what budget would be next year.

  14. Rob Ivison says:

    Tom – as you know, modifying a VLT UT in any significant way has been ruled out for at least 3 reasons – 1) cost, against a background in which E-ELT is ESO’s (AstroNET’s etc.) highest priority; 2) engineering/operational issues; 3) impact on VLTI.

    ESO are split re: VISTA spectroscopy. One relative youngster expressed the view that it’s the best option whereas two very senior folk were less enthusiastic. I argued that any Call for instrumentation shouldn’t be too prescriptive, tapping the creativity of the world’s instrument (and science) groups. We’ll see…

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