UKIRT seeks new operator for telescope


By PETER SUR

Tribune-Herald staff writer

Faced with the loss of funding from its parent agency, the Joint Astronomy Centre is offering to anybody interested a rare opportunity to take over a working Mauna Kea telescope.

One of 13 facilities on Mauna Kea, the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope, or UKIRT, is an observatory with a 12.5-foot diameter primary mirror that observes the invisible infrared spectrum of the universe.

It’s the second-largest infrared telescope in the world and the largest in the Northern Hemisphere. And according to JAC Director Gary Davis, “we are offering UKIRT to any astronomy organization that would like to take it over.”

“Whoever wants to take over the telescope can take it over at no cost,” he added.

Austerity measures in Britain have forced the U.K.’s Science and Technology Facilities Council in May to announce that it is ceasing funding for UKIRT at the end of September 2013 and the 15-meter James Clerk Maxwell Telescope after September 2014.

Both announcements have been met with disappointment in the astronomy community, but the STFC decision is leaving Davis with few other choices. The University of Hawaii, which holds the master lease on the telescope, has shown little interest in taking over the 33-year-old telescope, Davis said.

The other options include what Davis calls the “worst-case scenario”: surrendering the telescope with the approval of the chairman of the Board of Land and Natural Resources, or decommissioning and removal from the summit region, and a restoration of the property to its original condition.

UKIRT enters its final year of operation under current management as the world’s most productive telescope, Davis said, with a projected total of nearly 200 academic papers published this year. This is in large part due to the U.K. Infrared Deep Sky Survey, a recently completed seven-year survey of the night sky in the infrared.

UKIRT has operated under “minimalist mode” restrictions since 2010, meaning that the telescope is unattended at night and is operated remotely from a control room the JAC control room in Hilo. With five employees dedicated to work on that telescope and technical support from JCMT staff, UKIRT operates on a budget of $1.24 million per year.

A prospectus for interested universities and science organizations is available online at jach.hawaii.edu.

The next step will be to see who in the world would be interested in assuming control over UKIRT, pending approval by the University of Hawaii Board of Regents.

Requests from organizations who would want to take over UKIRT for the sole purpose of decommissioning it and removing it from the summit region of Mauna Kea will not be considered, Davis said.

“This process is completely unprecedented. This is the first time that … a world-leading telescope is being offered,” Davis said. “It’s never happened to a world-class professional telescope.”

But it will happen again. After March 2013, the Netherlands is withdrawing its 20 percent share in the budget of a separate telescope, the JCMT, with its 49-foot diameter submillimeter radio reflector dish. Then, at the end of September 2014, the two remaining agencies, Canada and the United Kingdom, will also cease funding for their 25 percent and 55 percent shares, respectively.

JAC is also making its Hilo headquarters and other facilities available for prospective bidders.

“UKIRT’s talented and dedicated staff are, in principle, available to be employed by a new operating organisation, and their continued participation would be an enormous asset,” the prospectus says.

UH Institute for Astronomy Director Klaus Hodapp said his university is not looking to be the sole operator.

“We are actually in discussion with UKIRT, but for the moment I don’t see the possibility that we can take over UKIRT,” he said. If it did happen, it would have to be a partnership with an entity that has “significant resources.”

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

 

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