Overheated Telescopes

Do we have too many telescopes ?

The STFC Ground Based Facilities Review is now well under way. There is an official GBFR web page, including a link to a well written consultation document, and an online questionnaire (did I spell that right ?)  The deadline for responses is July 31st. There is related “Town Meeting” scheduled for July 9th. (Thanks to Peter for spotting my earlier date screw-up).  The panel expects to publish a draft report by October 2nd; this schedule is designed to allow some chance of interaction with the US decadal survey.

Back in the 1990s I was on a PPARC review panel called the Ground Based Telescopes Development Panel (GBTDP).  Everybody referred to it as the  Ground Based Telescopes Destruction Panel. This time round the gloomy talk says the answer is already written : pull out of Gemini, close everything else except ESO membership, and pick ONE of ELT or SKA. Is that too pessimistic ? Is it in fact the right thing to do ? (See also Sarah’s post)

For sure, money is short and prospects poor. On top of STFC’s dodgy CLRC inheritance, we have a dodgy economy, subscriptions fixed in Euros with a falling pound, Research Councils faced with “efficiency savings”, a new Science Minister rumoured to be unconvinced by astronomy, and dark rumours of other problems.  Furthermore, as the consultation document says upfront, there is no doubt we have a somewhat “overheated” ground based programme, for understandable historical reasons. Something has to go or we will look foolish as well as greedy. But it would be equally foolish to swing right through to the doom scenario where we have only ESO and ELT.

After reading the GBFR document, I felt the urge to boil down some of the figures to get the big picture. So here are some bottom line round figures in size order. These are rough ten year costs, even though some things might not have ten year lifetimes. The idea is just for very rough comparison. I have mixed up existing things, current requests, and likely future requests, and have used todays exchange rates.

  • ESO incl ALMA : £212M
  • ELT-UK  £110M
  • SKA-UK : £82M
  • Gemini incl Oxford office : £60M
  • eMERLIN : £24M (could reduce)
  • 90% of UKIRT : £20M
  • LSST-UK (guesstimate to 2020) £20M
  • 55% of JCMT : £14M
  • 33% of WHT+INT : £10M
  • 40% of Liverpool Telescope : £5M
  • SuperWASP :  £4M
  • 8% of Magdalena Ridge : £3M
  • ALMA Reg. Centre : £3M
  • Dark Energy Survey (DES) £2M
  • LOFAR ops share £2M
  • JIVE £1M

Note that the fractions are open public fractions – eg Iain Steele (see comment below after my original version) notes that most of the rest of LT is still for UK astronomers.

One way to group these numbers is :

  • ESO+Gemini=260
  • new big-tickets=210
  • 4m-era legacy = 67
  • small beer = 30

So the legacy+smalls represent 17% of the total. My guess is that they represent very good value for money … but they are our only margin.

36 Responses to Overheated Telescopes

  1. telescoper says:


    Just a small point: the town meeting is scheduled for July 9th which is in the future rather than the past.


  2. Tom Kerr says:

    Just to be clear, for the JCMT costs, does the number include UKIRT remaining operational or for JCMT on its own? For obvious reasons JCMT operating costs will be less if UKIRT stays open but will be more expensive if it doesn’t. Same situation in reverse for UKIRT, obviously.

    Apologies if that’s clear in the GBFR document, haven’t had a chance to read it yet.


  3. Iain Steele says:

    I would argue the UK gets 75 per cent of the Liverpool Telescope for £5M – that is the total of the PATT + JMU allocations and the astronomers in JMU are also UK astronomers.

    If people don’t agree with that argument, then projects such as DES which have no general UK access outside of the collaboration as far as I understand it should be written as “0% of…”

  4. andyxl says:

    Peter – oops and thanks. My excuse is ummm errrr errr actually I haven’t got one. Think I will edit the post …

    Tom – the GBFR doc mentions JCMT-UKIRT linkage but doesn’t attempt to quantify it. I am sure the panel will try to.

    Iain – understood and agreed. Conversely perhaps I should have put “20% of PanSTARRS-1 £0M” because the money we have paid privately will be giving lots of science to Belfast, Durham, and Edinburgh astronomers…

  5. ian smail says:

    tom – i assume the GBFR document is giving the costs to the UK of JCMT and UKIRT operations. but andy hasn’t noted that the UK gets 55% of JCMT versus 90% of UKIRT.

  6. ian smail says:

    …and equally it would be good to note that the SKA price listed here only gets us “phase 1” of SKA and so excludes the ~£1.2B phase 2 costs, or the uncosted “phase 3” costs (phase 1 is apparently ~10% of the goal collecting area and a restricted frequency coverage).

  7. Michael Merrifield says:

    I would like to question the premise here. Why is there a ground-based facility review? If the starting point is, as claimed, a set of core science goals, why are ground-based facilities considered separately from space-based or even underground instrumentation in any attempt to figure out how to attain as many of those core goals as possible within a fixed budget?

  8. Kav says:

    Good luck, STP questioned that premise when it was decided to close our facilities down. There just seems to be a strange focus on ‘where’ measurements are taken.
    You know if the Times can be believed, Prof. Mason’s travel expenses (£105 per day!!!) over the last two years was enough to fund 82% of SAMNET (UK chain of magnetometers) operations in the same period.

    Anyway, back to telescopes…

  9. andyxl says:

    Ah yes but if we all take a 10% salary cut, we could afford another half a postdoc etc etc …

    There has already been a broad-ranging overall review; clearly this is pragmatically focused on what to do about a specific set of facilities. But the cross-linkages are crucial. I note the GBFR doc does say that a key reason for many of the mid-sized facilities in particular is support and follow up of space missions

  10. andyxl says:

    Dear all : do note also that there is a Euro-wide ASTRONET review of strategy for 2-4m telescopes

  11. Rob Ivison says:

    See recent blog entries to understand why space astronomy isn’t under review. As far as STFC is concerned, the case for space has been made. Money spent on astronomy in space keeps the space industry alive in lean times, comes back to the UK via juste retour, fires up the public, and so on. Having said that, our increasing ESA contributions seem set to gobble a hefty piece of the 2010+ pie, so I’d be interested to learn who advised on where that level was set.

    I’m not sure the costing you’ve given are all that helpful, Andy. Some include future instrument programmes, some don’t.

    Nor do I agree with your conclusion that our only margin is “legacy + smalls”, as the document makes clear.

  12. Michael Merrifield says:

    Not sure why we just sit back and take that argument, Rob. As Andy pointed out, ground-based astronomy places high-tech industrial contracts these days. Although ESO does not operate juste retour, it has enough political nous to know that it is going to have to share the contracts for E-ELT around the countries that pay for it, so in all those senses projects like it are no different from a space-based piece of kit.

    On more than one occasion, Keith Mason has made the argument that astronomy benefits from riding on the coat tails of the big-ticket items in the STFC budget, but that only works if they are weighed against each other, and decisions taken on marginal cuts to expensive hardware in order to preserve some of our relatively low-cost ground-based kit.

    • Sarah says:

      Actually if ESO don’t use a juste retour policy, has anyone ever seen a table of national distribution of industrial contracts it awards? Would be interesting and probably pretty relevant in such discussions, with “Impact” being so high on the agenda and all. I can’t see it anywhere on their site or in the Annual Reports.

      And shouldn’t that be “retour juste” anyway?

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        Although such historical comparisons would be interesting, they might be somewhat misleading with the UK only joining ESO after most of the major build up to and including the VLTs. Looking to the future, I suspect that no government will sign up for the capital build phase of E-ELT without some assurance that a fair share of contracts will come its country’s way to justify the expenditure to its voters (notwithstanding EU procurement rules!).

  13. Chris Evans says:

    The main outlay for the “big tickets” in the coming decade will be the capital costs which,
    as the GBFR doc points out, would almost certainly require successful bids to the Large Facility Capital Fund – i.e. a separate funding stream, making these projects less onerous in the near-term than the above numbers suggest.

    The quoted E-ELT running costs should also be considered as ~10-11M/yr from 2018 onwards. It’s worth remembering that the spend profile of ESO subscriptions will be very different by this stage(e.g. the construction phase of ALMA will be long finished) so this doesn’t necessarily equate to a huge hike in our ESO commitments.

  14. Tom Kerr says:

    Ian – thanks and good point although of course UKIRT being almost exclusively UK funded is a real double-edged sword. Interesting times…


  15. Michael Merrifield says:

    Chris — nonetheless, the GBFR’s views on the big-ticket items are rather important, since there is unlikely to be more than one astronomy bid to the LFCF in the coming round, and one would hope that STFC’s choice would be steered by the Review’s advice (and the fact that the whole of Europe has already concluded that E-ELT should happen first!).

  16. Chris Evans says:

    Indeed, couldn’t have put it better myself…

  17. John Peacock says:

    Depressing to hear talk of more bids to the LFCF. Remember provious debate on this issue: the more money STFC gets from the LFCF, the larger the depreciation payments, and the more non-cash “funding increases” eat into STFC’s ability to support its facilities via grants. If e.g. the ELT is to go ahead, we want this done within the ESO subscription (enhanced if need be) so there is no depreciation hit.

  18. Dave Carter says:


    The Astronet roadmap did not distinguish between E-ELT and SKA on priority, it concluded that they were of equal priority and could both be delivered given appropriate phasing, a conclusion which may have been overtaken by events. To me, this is a discussion and decision which can no longer be ducked. It is vital that the GBFR considers this issue openly and without preconceptions.


    For goodness sake keep saying this, nobody else seems to understand. LFCF is like PFI, it is off-book borrowing. It is not extra money it has to be paid back later.

  19. Michael Merrifield says:

    John — I am afraid my grasp of resource-based accounting is fairly limited, but it is not obvious that an investment from the LFCF in an E-ELT funded through an international treaty organization has the same depreciation implications as those for a domestic investment where STFC efectively ends up directly owning the resource. We are not, for example, paying depreciation on the capital investment that bought us into ESO in the first place.

  20. Michael Merrifield says:

    Dave — the Astronet Roadmap indeed did not distinguish between E-ELT and SKA on priority, and I never claimed that it did. It did, however, as I stated, express a definite view as to the phasing of the two projects:

    It therefore appears possible to establish a phasing plan with significant spending on the E-ELT through ESO starting in 2010; SKA Phase 1 funding will then ramp up from 2012 and both telescopes should achieve early science around the middle of the decade. Then, at the end of the E-ELT construction peak in 2016, SKA Phase 2 will begin and the full array will take shape
    We emphasise that this phased approach is required
    in order to keep the necessary momentum and expertise
    to achieve successful European participation and
    leadership for both projects.

    It is entirely possible that this plan will be overtaken by events, but it still seems the best prior (or “preconception” if your prefer) at this point, and the UK would be very foolish to try and impose a national agenda in opposition to the international view.

  21. Dave Carter says:

    I agree Mike that the UK cannot impose a national agenda, indeed it won’t be able to. But it can put itself in the centre of the decision making process. And a clear view of what our own national priorities are will enable it to do that.

    Its probably true that you don’t get charged depreciation on something you don’t own, though I would never write off the creativity of government accountants. About the only argument I can think of for having ESO in charge of these things…..

  22. Dave Carter says:

    On the other hand you are locked into whatever increase in subscription you have agreed with ESO, you can’t just stop paying for it if it doesn’t work.

  23. […] Andy and Sarah have already blogged about this -and they both know a lot more than me about ground-based astronomy – so I won’t try to cover the same ground as them. I would however, like to make a repeat couple of points. […]

  24. Michael Merrifield says:

    The issue, though, Dave, is that the relevant decision-making process has already taken place through the extensive Astronet process. That now sets the landscape within which the GBFR and, indeed, STFC should be making their decisions. My concern is that someone somewhere along the line will view this process as a way to try to force a narrower national agenda, and we will, yet again, look foolish, uncollaborative and out-of-step on the World stage, confirming us as poor international partners who have no respect for our partners’ decisions. At the very least, we could end up locked out of the World’s leading ground-based facility for the coming decade.

    On the accountancy issue, I guess it probably depends on exactly what the intergovernmental agreement says about ownership of ESO’s assets, and what the rules are for the LFCF. My unnamed civil service source’s view is that the choice of accountancy model is largely arbitrary, which means that the Treasury can interpret it to suit the politics of the day. So, one more reason to get in there early and try to set up a bid in a way that doesn’t cripple our budget into the future.

  25. dave Carter says:

    I think whatever we do there is some danger of being locked out of the World’s leading ground-based facility. Or at least of half us thinking we are.

    What I still don’t understand is what the decision making process is. Astronet produced as I understand it a steer for the national funding agencies who set it up. But what is the forum in which these national agencies make decisions and commitments?

  26. Michael Merrifield says:

    The point of Astronet’s conclusion about phasing was to try and avoid that happening: by staggering the expenditure, with the peak of E-ELT before SKA, there is more chance of there being enough money to go around, and astronomers not being cut out from one or the other.

    I am not sure it is necessarily a good way to reach such decisions, but it is worth asking how big each “half” actually is in the UK at the moment. Given the difference in oversubscription rate between the UK’s single premier radio-astronomy facility and that for the multiplicity of OIR facilities, the current numbers are fairly clear-cut. However, as we also know already, radio astronomers do a far better job of making a clear coherent case for their corner.

  27. dave Carter says:

    I would say Mike that the science goals of the community, and how they might be achieved, should drive any such decision, rather than the size of the communities which use legacy facilities (slightly worried about this phrase from Andy, but lets use it for the moment anyway) at the same wavelengths.

  28. andyxl says:

    Mike – the best facilities / instruments create their own communities. SCUBA has been an enormous success despite the original submm community being small; when it arrived it was by a clear margin the best in the world, and opened up new kinds of science, so lots of people jumped on the boat. Going back a few years, before Einstein, X-ray astronomy was a substantial but specialised community. After Einstein, everybody was an X-ray astronomer. If SKA is as good as we hope, many many more people will want to use it than currently use MERLIN. That certainly includes me. (I am already thinking that eMERLIN and LOFAR are big enough steps that I want to do some stuff with them, even though I have never submitted a MERLIN proposal.)

  29. Michael Merrifield says:

    As I said, I don’t think it is necessarily a good way to make decisions, but it is a non-negligible factor. Unfortunately, history does not entirely agree with your analysis, Andy. Everyone did not become X-ray astronomers post-Einstein, and, equally to the point, X-ray astronomers did not themselves branch out into other wavebands once the reason for concentrating just in that part of the spectrum — the need to be effectively an instrument specialist — went away. Even today you can still find a surprising number of “X-ray astronomy” conferences as opposed to conferences on astrophysical topics.

    Yes, SKA will be revolutionary in what it does, but so will E-ELT. So, once you have agreed that both will be extremely exciting, you have to look to other factors to decide which should be this country’s first priority. These factors should surely include what existing size of community we have with the track record and expertise to be in a position to lead as much as possible of that exciting science.

  30. Tom Shanks says:

    I look in vain for any mention of Wide Field Spectroscopy in the Ground-Based Review questionnaire. No mention of WFMOS, WFMOS substitutes or even AAT 2dF! Seems to me like a complete community is being ignored here. E-ELT and SKA are worth supporting but both have limitations. E-ELT instruments frequently only reach the diffraction limit of a 4-m rather than a 42-m telescope. Also the etendue of E-ELT is a fraction of even present day instruments such as AAT 2dF! SKA will also give only limited info from a 21cm line-strength, redshift and/or a continuum flux – SKA will therefore need support from wide-field spectroscopic instruments like WFMOS. WFMOS-style instruments are certainly also more multi-purpose and cheaper than E-ELT or SKA.

    Looks like anyone interested in wide-field spectroscopy is just expected to use the open comment boxes in the GFBR questionnaire to support their area – I recommend you do!

  31. Rob Ivison says:

    The questionnaire lacks a box to demand wide-field spectroscopy, but wide-field spectroscopy is not singled out for omission. As you suggest, the comment boxes should be used if you feel strongly about something and can’t find an appropriate box to tick – that’s why they’re there.

    The consultation document states: “The ASTRONET Roadmap placed a strong emphasis on the need for new wide-field spectroscopic instrumentation and has set up a review to explore this issue, from which we hope to have input for our final report. The issue has become critical for the UK following the decision of the Gemini Board not to continue with WFMOS.”

    Later, it states: “While E-ELT is ESO’s overwhelming priority for the foreseeable future (after ALMA), the community has also been pushing for a wide-field spectroscopic capability. As a result, a Call for New Instrumentation is imminent.”

    You can rest assured that an entire community isn’t being ignored – not yours anyway 🙂

  32. […] Overheated Telescopes « The e-Astronomer […]

  33. […] as John Peacock reminded us recently, it ain’t clear that taking money from the LFCF is a good thing. These capital investments […]

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