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Wanted - new owner for one of world's major telescopes

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
Jun 30, 2013, 7:00 UTC

Sen—One of the world’s leading observatories is being given away because current owner the UK Government cannot afford to run it any more.

The powerful James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, named after a famous Victorian Scottish physicist, has made cutting-edge discoveries for more than 25 years from its lofty peak more than 4000 metres high on Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

If no new organisation can be found to operate the telescope, it will have to be dismantled at considerable cost and the site restored to its pristine state under the original terms of its construction. The observatory is keen to put up an “under new management” sign instead. It issued a prospectus last week, and it shows there will be no charge for the observatory itself.

Of course this “free” telescope with its giant 15-metre reflecting dish comes with a catch. Whoever takes it over will have to show they can afford to pay its annual running costs. In the past these have amounted to $5.6 million a year, but it is suggested that it could operate for less than half that at $2.4 million a year.

The UK’s funding agency for astronomy, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), announced last year following a spending review that it would not be able to support the JCMT or its smaller neighbour, the 3.8-metre United Kingdom Infra-Red Telescope (UKIRT) which are operated on Hawaii by the Joint Astronomy Centre (JAC).

The JCMT’s exciting work has included mapping the most distant galaxies, tracing the distribution and properties of gas and dust in galaxies closer to home and discovering the embryos of new stars in our own Milky Way.

Whirlpool Galaxy

This composite image of the Whirlpool Galaxy M51 in Canes Venatici combines red and blue submillimetre light detected by SCUBA-2 with an image by the Hubble space Telescope, shown in green. Credit: JAC/STScI

It has studied black holes, discovered discs of debris around individual stars and even analysed the chemistry of Venus’s atmosphere. Innovative instrumentation includes the world’s fastest submillimetre mapping camera, SCUBA-2.

So why get rid of the telescope? Reason is that the cash-strapped STFC wants to concentrate funding on the newer major observatories in Chile such as the Very Large Telescope (VLT) and the Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array (ALMA) as part of the European Southern Observatory consortium.

It will also continue to give UK astronomers access to the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes (ING) on the Canary Island of La Palma so that they can observe northern skies.

Until now, the JCMT has been operated as a partnership between the UK and smaller contributors Canada and the Netherlands. Now the STFC has issued a prospectus to offer the JCMT to the global astronomical community.

It states: “There are no preconceptions or constraints: we welcome parties wishing to take over the operation of the entire observatory, parties interested in becoming minor partners, and any other permutation. We are willing to consider any and all possibilities.”

The JCMT is described as a highly-productive, world-leading observatory with unique observational capabilities for astronomy in the submillimetre region of the spectrum. It is being offered at a time when the Herschel space telescope has successfully completed its mission and as ALMA ramps up towards full science operations.

The prospectus says: “ALMA’s high sensitivity within small fields is a perfect complement to the JCMT’s wide-field instruments.” Current observatory staff will lose their jobs if if the observatory closes but it is suggested that they could transfer to employment by new management.