Farewell UKIRT

A short but sad post. After yet another review, STFC has finally bitten the bullet and decided to close both JCMT (at the end of 2014) and UKIRT (in September 2013). Not a big surprise, but very very sad. La Palma is extended to 2015 with hope of extended negotiations with partners. The STFC announcement is here. I understand there will be an RAS reaction today.

The timing twists the knife. Today we start the fourth Science from UKIDSS workshop, and UKIRT just announced record-breaking productivity.The last UKIDSS observing was about a week or so back. For the final year, UKIRT will carry out a large area J-band survey, the first section of the hoped-for UKIRT Hemisphere survey. The final UKIDSS data release won’t be too long now, but I am expecting it will produce science for years to come – 338 UKIDSS related publications so far, and the rate is still speeding up.

Of course, WFCAM is just the last in a long line of stunning UKIRT instruments. Catch me in the pub and you will get my UKT9, CGS4, and IRCAM stories.

My grateful thanks to dozens of UKIRT and JCMT over the last thirty years, but especially to the gang who are still there now making my science possible – Gary, Tom, Watson, Jack, Thor et al.

I have this feeling that our workshop dinner tonight may be even more sozzled than we expected.

19 Responses to Farewell UKIRT

  1. Simon Driver says:

    Very sorry to hear this. UKIDSS WFCAM data is superb, and such a massive improvement over 2MASS. Presumably some institution will take it over? [One would like to think that given the plethora of optical imaging facilities coming online, someone somewhere will seize the opportunity of owning the best northern hemisphere wide field near-IR imager…or are we destined to retreat back to a mono-chromatic perspective.]

    Have a good meeting and congrats to all in UKIDSS for its productivity.

    • Nick Cross says:

      Lee Kelvin gave a very nice talk about structural properties of galaxies in GAMA, and made very good points about how necessary the NIR data from WFCAM was.

  2. […] been much reaction to this announcement on Twitter. Andy Lawrence has posted about it, for example.  Most colleagues of mine who have commented on the STFC decision have expressed […]

  3. Mark McCaughrean says:

    Very sad news indeed. While I haven’t directly been a UKIRT user for many, many years (albeit extremely peripherally involved in UKIDSS), I greatly appreciate the excellent science that it has continued to generate. As Simon has already said, it’s hard to see the UKIRT+WFCAM combination simply being turned off, so let’s hope for some new owners.

    For me, UKIRT was absolutely central during my PhD, working on the IRCAM team and before, doing single pixel mapping and polarimetry. The memories of all the people who worked so hard to make it all possible remain strong; thanks and so long for all the ahi.

  4. John Peacock says:

    Simon Driver is absolutely right: someone will undoubtedly snap up UKIRT for next to no money and get a bargain. And maybe a few lucky Brits will get to collaborate with the new owner. All too reminiscent of the AAT, where we handed our half-share to Australia for zero. OK, you guys had to pay more to run it, but when you look at the quality of science that’s still coming out, it’s heartbreaking to see that we walked away from all that for the sake of such a tiny saving. I suppose the best that can be said is that the UK now doesn’t have any other telescopes left to make the same mistake with.

  5. Tom says:

    For those interested the UKIRT Board responded to the STFC statement this afternoon and made what I thought was a much more robust statement than the rather weak one (in my opinion) posted by the RAS. The response is posted at the JAC and UKIRT webpages and is can be seen via the following link:

    Click to access Statement_from_the_UKIRT_Board.pdf

    Unfortunately I think it’s accepted that STFC funding won’t be available after 2014 but it’s a complete mystery to just about everyone why UKIRT support ceases a year earlier than the JCMT’s when the cost of running UKIRT for that extra year is less than 100K sterling – it’s essentially free as long as the JCMT is funded – so why throw away the opportunity of another year of science operations and wide-field IR data?

  6. I note that this sad news comes on the 44th anniversary of the inaugural meeting of the Thanet Astronomical Society for Youth, which you supported as a teenager. If we had known then what we know now…

  7. Antonio says:

    That’s a good statement from the UKIRT Board, Tom. Much better than the spin that came out of STFC (just tell it like it is! We’re cutting the programme because we want to put the money into ELT). And way, way better than the very weak, pathetic and wishy-washy statement that came from RAS. Contrast the difference when the Gemini withdrawal was announced. Most disappointing.

    The staff here in the islands have the impression that those in the UK do not care anymore.


    • Dennis says:

      Of course the ELT depends on Brazil ratifying the agreement – far from a certainty. If Brazil does not join ESO, it will be a few years before the ELT really starts

  8. Steve says:

    It is very sad news. My guess is that reaction from the JCMT community may be muted because at least the legacy survey will be completed. However, I think it will be increasingly obvious over the next couple of years that both the JCMT and UKIRT are key telescopes for studying the universe as viewed by Herschel and also as a complement to other northern-hemisphere surveys, such as those being carried out with LOFAR. If there is a case for a northern-hemisphere optical observatory, there is even more of a case for a northern-hemisphere IR/submm observatory, especially when it is the observatory with the unique instruments (SCUBA-2, WFCAM). It will be interesting to see if there is any science case for this choice or whether it is simply the choice that saves the most money.

  9. Omar says:

    I am utterly baffled by this decision. Closing JCMT in 2014 is bad enough, but why close UKIRT a year earlier when the additional cost of running both facilities in parallel is so low? The combination of ‘minimalist mode’, shared staff and international partners mean that UKIRT essentially comes for free.

    Scientifically, UKIRT’s productivity is at an all time high (138 papers in 2011), and 2012 is on track to be even stronger. Wide-field IR in the northern hemisphere is vital for following up key Herschel, SCUBA2 and LOFAR fields (as Steve mentions), and we have the opportunity to build on the great success of UKIDSS. It is also worth mentioning that UKIRT is more sensitive than VISTA in the crucial K band.

    We can all understand that tough decisions need to be made, but in this case the outcome simply makes no sense.

  10. Ken Rice says:

    I was peripherally involved in UKIRT Planet Finder (UPF) and I thought it was an excellent project with a fantastic science case. As far as I’m aware the scientific assessment of UPF concurred. It, however, wasn’t funded, largely (I believe – although I could be wrong) because of the associated cost of running UKIRT, not because of the cost of building the instrument (which was relatively low). I’ve also had a look at the remit for the “Science Board Sub-Group to Consider Future of JCMT/UKIRT and ING”. They were “required to consider the strength of the science case for each of the proposals, the competitiveness of the proposals and also consider how the proposed options fit within the rest of the astronomy programme.” This all seems a little circular to me (although I’m happy to be corrected by those who know better). We don’t fund a fantastic instrument because it would require keeping an observatory open and then ask a group to assess the science case for that observatory, which now doesn’t look particularly strong because we didn’t fund the ground-breaking instrument that required the observatory to remain open. I’m not suggesting that UPF was the only strong case for keeping UKIRT open, but not funding it surely didn’t help.

  11. andyxl says:

    Ken – as Gary made clear in his talk this afternoon, the rejection of UPF was indeed the thing that made eventual closure of UKIRT inevitable. If you stop investing in something, pretty soon you have to stop operating it. JAC did exactly the right thing with minimalist mode, because – as we are seeing – scientific output remains high several years after you stop investing; so you might as well minimise the operating cost to maximise the scientific return per pound. Personally, I believe this would remain true for several more years, but I know I am not exactly neutral. However – the extra year lopped off ??? This just seems bizarre, misjudged, and cruel.

  12. Albert Zijlstra says:

    A sad day. I have used UKIRT a number of times, most recently for 3-micron integral field spectroscopy – a mode still not available anywhere else. UKIRT has always been innovative in its instrumentation. And in its funny pointing restriction. I don’t understand the reasoning behind the lost year either. Perhaps because 2014 is when we regain full access to the VLT?

    I guess this gives UKIRT the distinction of being the largest optical/IR telescope to have closed. Herschel will end first, in 2013, but it is ‘only’ a 3.5m. At least something in which we are still world-leading.

  13. […] the La Palma telescopes, will be kept open for a bit longer. Details here and some opinions from UK astronomers here. Filed Under: […]

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  15. A Deeley C.Eng says:

    Hi, I was actually one of the team the built UKIRT in Sheffield. What a sad day. It was designed to last at lest 75 years. Due to the miner’s strikes some of the design and assembly was done by candlelight.


  16. Alan Hill says:

    Very sad. I manufactured the metalwork for the optics at Specac ltd Orpington and have been proud of how it has performed from 1979.

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