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UK astronomers lament telescope phase-outs

British astronomers are incensed after the UK Science & Technology Facilities Council on 30 May revealed plans to phase out operations of two telescopes in Hawaii. The council would cease support for the 3.8-metre United Kingdom Infra-Red Telescope (UKIRT) in September 2013 and then pull support for the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT), a 15-metre sub-millimetre telescope, in September 2014.

The UKIRT board reacted to that decision today, issuing a statement complaining that it made no sense to curtail operations of the UKIRT before the JCMT, as both telescopes are operated through the Joint Astronomy Centre in Hawaii. The board says that the marginal cost of operating UKIRT (pictured) until September 2014 would be less than £100,000 (US$154,000). “I feel this is very short-sighted and a big mistake,” says Peter Sarre, a molecular astrophysicist at the University of Nottingham, UK, and a former member of the UKIRT board.

The move is the latest by the United Kingdom to shed commitments to astronomical observatories worldwide. In 2007, it suddenly withdrew from the partnership to operate the Gemini project — twin 8-metre telescopes in Hawaii and Chile — only to be reinstated a few months later. But two years later, the funding crisis forced the United Kingdom to withdraw from Gemini for good, with its time on the telescopes ending this year.

Image: UKIRT

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