Wednesday | November 22, 2017
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Second life for telescope? (or I’m not quite dead yet) British observatory, facing setting sun, might get new operator

HILO — A Mauna Kea telescope that’s running out of time and money may have a lifeline.

The United Kingdom Infrared Telescope has been counting down the days since the cash-strapped U.K. Science and Technology Facilities Council announced this summer that it would be discontinuing funding for the telescope after September 2013.

UKIRT and another U.K.-managed telescope, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, are both run by the Joint Astronomy Centre in Hilo.

The fate of UKIRT had long been in doubt as a result of prior rounds of staff reductions and a switch to remote observations, but the June decision forced telescope operators to be creative in finding a new source of funding.

In October, JAC Director Gary Davis announced that his organization was willing to hand over the operations of the world’s second largest infrared telescope to “any astronomy organization that would like to take it over” at no cost.

Had no research institution expressed interest, the center would have had to decommission the telescope and return the site to its natural condition. But on Friday, Davis said there was hope.

“We’ve received a number of expressions of interest for UKIRT, and a number of them appear to be (strong possibilities), so we’re really looking at it in detail,” Davis said.

Because no decision had been made, Davis could not say who has expressed interest.

“I’m hoping to make a final decision by the end of March,” he said.

If an operator can be found, the 33-year-old telescope will scan the night skies until a final decision to terminate funding is reached or until the expiration of the University of Hawaii’s lease of Mauna Kea in 2033.

Since 2005, UKIRT has been compiling the U.K. Infrared Deep Sky Survey, a panoramic study of the entire sky in the infrared spectrum. The survey is focused on distant redshifted galaxies at the margins of the visible universe. The telescope has operated since 2010 in “minimalist mode,” meaning that it is unattended at night and is operated remotely in Hilo.

JCMT, a submillimeter observatory with a 49-foot diameter reflector dish, faces the same fate as UKIRT. The funding for JCMT is scheduled to expire in 2014, and Davis said he would make a similar announcement offering its world-class facilities in the future.

Davis said his own position is up in the air, depending on what the new operators of UKIRT decide.

UKIRT and JCMT are not the only observatories facing funding challenges. At a meeting in Chile in November, Australia has indicated it will not be a partner with Gemini Observatory after 2015.

“The position of Australia at this time is that it cannot commit funding for the observatory post-2015, but expresses a desire to remain engaged in Gemini for access to the telescope,” the Gemini Board said in a resolution.

This new announcement comes on top of the U.K.’s stated intent to withdraw as a partner at the end of this year, severely crimping operations. Gemini officials could not be reached Thursday afternoon for comment.