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STFC island site telescopes: response from the Royal Astronomical Society

Last Updated on Thursday, 31 May 2012 14:15
Published on Thursday, 31 May 2012 14:06

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) today expressed deep regret at the decision of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) to end support for two major astronomical telescopes. The decision, a consequence of ongoing real terms cuts to the UK science budget by the Government, will almost certainly see the Hawaii-based UK Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) cease operations in the autumn of 2013 and the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) do the same a year later, with the loss of around 40 jobs.

The Society however welcomed the decision to seek to continue UK involvement in the William Herschel Telescope (WHT), sited on the island of La Palma in the Canaries, which observes the sky in visible light. Without the WHT, UK astronomers would have been in the odd position of being unable to observe the northern hemisphere of the sky – in other words many of the stars and galaxies above our heads – at optical wavelengths. This access is also critical for instrument development and for observations that complement new radio observatories like the pan-European LOFAR array.

jcmtThe James Clerk Maxwell Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Credit: JCMT / JACProfessor David Southwood, President of the Royal Astronomical Society, commented: “The closure of these innovative facilities, telescopes that continue to deliver ground-breaking research, is a sad day for British astronomy. It will further reduce the capacity of UK astronomers to carry out world-leading science.
‘After consultation with the astronomical community, I am pleased that STFC has found a solution that will allow UK scientists to continue to use the Isaac Newton Group, an issue of concern for the RAS since 2007.

‘At the moment UK astronomers and space scientists are amongst the most productive in the world and are second only to the United States in the number of citations of our scientific papers. This and the quality of our facilities have made the UK an attractive destination for researchers from across the globe. Astronomy remains a core inspiration for bringing students into science and engineering, recognised as being of key importance for long term economic growth.

‘As we move to step up involvement in projects like the Square Kilometre Array and the European Extremely Large Telescope, the UK needs to remain a credible international partner with a decent research infrastructure. Reduction in access to astronomical observatories and in research funding more generally puts this at risk.”


Media contacts

Robert Massey
Royal Astronomical Society
Tel: +44 (0)20 7334 3307 x214
Mob: +44 (0)794 124 8035
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Prof. David Southwood
President, Royal Astronomical Society
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[For interview requests with Prof. Southwood please contact Robert Massey]


Notes for editors

STFC statement on island sites


With a 3.8 metre diameter mirror, the UK Infrared Telescope (UKIRT: is the second largest dedicated infrared telescope in the world. Sited at an altitude of 4200 m on the top of the volcano Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii, it began operations in 1979. UKIRT is carrying out the UKIRT Deep Sky Survey (UKIDSS: searching for objects from nearby brown dwarfs to distant quasars. In 2012 the UKIDSS team received the RAS Group Award.


The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT: observes submillimetre radiation, emitted in the region of the spectrum between far-infrared and microwaves. JCMT is also on Mauna Kea and is the largest telescope of its kind in the world. The telescope saw ‘first light’ in 1987 and is run by the UK, Canada and the Netherlands. The Submillimetre Common User Bolometric Array 2 (SCUBA-2) is mounted on JCMT and is surveying the Galaxy and wider universe for undiscovered populations of stars and galaxies.

The Royal Astronomical Society

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS,, founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organizes scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3500 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.

Follow the RAS on Twitter via @royalastrosoc