Published online 28 January 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.533
Updated online: 6 March 2008

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UK shut out of Gemini telescope

Gemini board rejects bid to continue partial involvement in observatory.

Gemini gave UK astronomers easy access to an 8-metre telescope viewing the northern sky.Gemin Observatory/Richard Wainscoat IfA

The Gemini Observatory has rejected a bid to allow UK astronomers continued access to one of its two telescopes.

The rejection means the astronomers will be very restricted in their ability to view much of the northern sky, says Michael Rowan-Robinson, president of the Royal Astronomical Society in London. "Obviously, we're very disappointed."

Gemini consists of two 8-metre telescopes: one located in the Northern Hemisphere atop Mount Mauna Kea in Hawaii and the other on top of Cerro Pachon in Chile. They are among the biggest and most sophisticated optical/infrared telescopes in the world.

Between 1994 and 2001, the United Kingdom contributed £30 million ($US59 million) to construction of the telescopes, which earned it a share of time on the facilities. But the UK government abruptly announced its intention to withdraw ongoing funds from the partnership in November of last year, in order to make up for an £80 million ($158 million) shortfall in its budget (see <a href="http://www.nature.com/uidfinder/10.1038/450468b">UK astronomers stunned by Gemini withdrawal</a>). Without active financial participation, UK astronomers will no longer have access to the facilities unless they partner with active members of the collaboration.

North and south

The decision came in part because the southern telescope's field of view overlapped with the telescopes of the European Southern Observatory, in which the UK remains a partner. But astronomers objected vehemently.

"Once we lose Gemini, we have no 8-m telescope access [in the North], which is what one needs to see the dimmest objects," says Patrick Roche, an astronomer at Oxford University. Roche says that the loss will hamper efforts to follow up on objects spotted in a current UK infrared survey of the northern sky.

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As a concession, the UK government sought to gain some access to the Hawaiian instrument, despite withdrawing from the observatory overall. But in a decision on 25 January, the Gemini board rejected the offer, saying that the proposal "is not in the best interests of the partnership".

Rowan-Robinson says that the decision, if it stands, will almost certainly mean a loss of scientific capability. He hopes to convince the Gemini board to take a second look in light of the current funding crisis. "We feel the Gemini board ought to look more sympathetically at the UK situation," he says. "I still hope that they will reconsider." 

Updated:

Britain has reached an agreement that will allow UK astronomers continued access to the Gemini Observatory. See 'UK scientists keep access to the Gemini telescopes' for more details.

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