Telescope running out of money


A telescope able to examine “baby stars before they come out of the cradle,” and galaxies in the earliest star formation stage, is one of two British-funded telescopes on Mauna Kea that’s looking for funds to continue operating.

The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope is looking internationally for help after a prime chunk of funding runs out in September 2014. The University of Hawaii’s Joint Astronomy Centre, which manages the 13 telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea, issued a prospectus last week seeking nearly $5 million a year to keep the British-funded astronomy research facility open.

Steep funding cuts for scientific research by Great Britain are having that kind of an impact on Hawaii Island. The JCMT is owned by the Science and Technology Facilities Council, the funding agency for astronomy in the United Kingdom. With a 15-meter diameter, the JCMT is the largest astronomical telescope in the world designed specifically to operate in the submillimeter wavelength region of the spectrum, according to the telescope’s Web site.

The prospectus is a unique way to reach as many players interested in the future of the telescope as possible, said Gunther Hasinger, director of the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy.

And it’s the second telescope on Mauna Kea owned by Great Britain now seeking financial help. Last year a similar prospectus was sent out for the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope telescope, Hasinger said. “They have already pulled out of Gemini,” referring to a small stake Great Britain had in the Gemini telescope on Mauna Kea.

“The (JCMT) observatory, its instrumentation, and its support equipment are … being offered to to the global astronomical community,” according to the JAC’s announcement of the prospectus on Wednesday. All proposals are being considered, it said. “There are no preconceptions or constraints.”

Although the JCMT prospectus has just been launched and it’s still too early for responses yet, the process has gone on longer than Hasinger had hoped for the UKIRT facility. “Actually, it’s a challenge,” he said. There has been interest, but, “we are still awaiting formal proposals.” The deadline for responding to the JCMT prospectus in Sept. 15.

Failing in the effort to keep the facilities operating would amount to “a huge loss scientifically,” said Gary Davis, director of the JCMT. Although about 40 and 30 years old, respectively, the UKIRT and JCMT are among the most productive telescopes on Mauna Kea,” Hasing said. About every third day scientists at one of the facilities publishes a new scientific publication.

The JCMT also houses a two-year-old, $20 million SCUBA-2 camera sensitive to light from very distant objects,” Hasing said, and it’s the only telescope providing critical data for the development of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile, the largest astronomical project in existence.

“Whether we’re successful or not, well, we’ll just have to wait and see.” Davis said he’s not aware of any other “world-leading telescopes” ever making such a open pitch to survive. “We’ll put it on the open market and see what happens,” he said, and the prospectus will provide the “maximum possible chance of success.”

Closure of the telescopes would have an impact on the Hawaii Island economy as well, Hasing said. About 100 employees work at the two facilities.

The full JCMT prospectus is available on the web sites of the JCMT and the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy.

Email Hunter Bishop at hbishop@hawaiitribune-herald.com.