UKIRT board

By PETER SUR

By PETER SUR

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Tribune-Herald staff writer

The governing board of a Mauna Kea telescope says it is “very disappointed” with the decision of the United Kingdom to cease funding after September 2013.

The U.K. Infrared Telescope board of directors released a statement saying that it “welcomes” the extension of funding for another UK-managed telescope, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, through September 2014.

But the board was critical about the U.K.’s Science and Technology Facilities Council ending support for UKIRT a year earlier.

“We are, however, very disappointed that STFC funding for UKIRT operations will cease from 30 September 2013 and do not understand why the opportunity to continue scientific operations for another year has been rejected, particularly as the operations costs that would fall on STFC are very low.”

The board estimated that contributions from international customers and the shared operation with JCMT would bring the additional funding needed to operate UKIRT through September 2014 down to less than $150,000.

The board called UKIRT “a world-leading facility” and said the move by the council would curtail a deep infrared survey across the northern hemisphere night sky.

“UKIRT’s productivity is at an all-­time high, with the number of papers published in 2011 among the highest of any telescope in the world, with a remarkable cost-effective operation that is a real testament to the kill and dedication of the JAC staff,” the board said. The board also hopes that “another organization” will take over operation of the telescope and continue its work.

The two telescopes are managed by the Joint Astronomy Centre; questions were referred to Director Gary Davis, who is in London and could not be reached by press time.

Assuming the funding decision is final, the Mauna Kea Comprehensive Management Plan’s Decommissioning Subplan outlines the options available for the Joint Astronomy Centre.

In the case of UKIRT, the sublease states that the telescope could be sold to the University of Hawaii, sold to a third party acceptable to the university, or surrendered with the approval of the chairman of the Board of Land and Natural Resources. The fourth option is the STFC would fund the removal of the telescope and a restoration of the property to its original condition. Similar terms apply to the JCMT.

With a primary mirror 12.5 feet in diameter, UKIRT was until 2008 the world’s largest telescope dedicated solely to infrared astronomy. The observatory was built in 1979 and explores the area of the electromagnetic spectrum between visible light and submillimeter radiation.

JCMT, which recently celebrated its 25th birthday, is the largest single-dish submillimeter telescope, with a 49-foot diameter reflector dish to explore the region of the infrared spectrum between infrared radiation and radio waves. Its next-generation successor, with a 82-foot diameter reflector, will be built on a mountain in Chile.

STFC chief executive John Womersley has said in a statement that negotiations must begin negotiations with UH, the leaseholder for the site, and with other potential operators of the Hawaii telescopes.

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“If a suitable alternate operator is not identified for either Hawaiian telescope, STFC will decommission that telescope and restore the site as required by the lease,” Womersley said.

Email Peter Sur at psur@hawaiitribune-herald.com.