The impending closure of the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope might be averted if the observatory’s owners can find a buyer.Got $1.24 million in your pocket? That’s how much it’ll cost per year to operate a productive, world-class observatory atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. As announced late last month, the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) is for sale — a package deal that includes the 12.5-foot (3.8-meter) reflector, its enclosure, and all its instrumentation and support equipment.
This unusual event came about thanks to U.K.’s astronomy funding crisis. In May, the country’s Science and Technology Facilities Council decided to stop supporting two telescopes atop Mauna Kea. The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT), which observes submillimeter wavelengths with a 15-meter primary mirror, is scheduled to close in 2014; UKIRT is to be shuttered a year earlier, in September 2013. The two closures make room in the budget for U.K.’s participation in up-and-coming megaprojects, including the ALMA radio array, the Square Kilometer Array, and the 39-meter European Extremely Large Telescope.But Gary Davis, director of the Joint Astronomy Centre that operates both of the threatened facilities, and Oxford astrophysicist Pat Roche, who chairs the JAC’s board, won’t let UKIRT close down without a fight. On September 28th, they issued an Announcement of Opportunity offering the observatory to the global astronomical community. The deadline for proposals is November 30th. Read the full prospectus (PDF file).
“This process is completely unprecedented,” Davis says. “I can think of telescopes that have been pensioned off because they are old or small or on poor sites, but this is the first time that a productive, world-leading telescope has been in this situation.”
Built in the late 1970s, UKIRT is currently the world’s second largest telescope dedicated to infrared research, surpassed only by the 4-meter VISTA telescope in Chile. The two facilities are complementary, in that UKIRT surveys the northern sky, and it’s the only 4-meter-class infrared telescope to do so.“UKIRT is currently the world’s most productive telescope,” Davis adds, and indeed just as the observatory is threatened with closure, the telescope has come to a peak in productivity in large part due to the all-sky UKIRT Infrared Deep Sky Survey. In 2011 alone, almost 140 papers were based on observations with UKIRT, and nearly 100 of these were based on results from UKIDSS. The newest result, released today, digs through the survey to find distant supermassive black holes shining bright in infrared light. These leviathans would have been hidden by dust if astronomers had been looking for them with visible light.
The survey mapped 7,500 square degrees of the northern sky in three wavebands between May 2005 and May 2012, providing an important infrared counterpart to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, an all-sky survey done in visible light. An extension of this effort, the UKIRT Hemisphere Survey, will continue until September 30, 2013, though it was originally envisioned as a four-year program.
Whether UKIDSS will continue depends on the proposals responding to the Announcement of Opportunity. Davis says that no Expressions of Interest have been sent in yet, but he has received many inquiries.
“My ideal outcome from this challenging situation is for UKIRT to continue doing world-leading science under new ownership, and for the existing talented and dedicated staff to be kept on,” Davis says. “If those two things happen, then the process will have been a success.”