Spaceflight Now: Breaking News

Rumors of Jodrell Bank's demise greatly exaggerated

Posted: July 19, 2000

The MKII Radio Telescope at Jodrell Bank. Photo: Ian Morison
Stories circulating in the media that another of Britain's world-famous astronomical centres is about to follow the Royal Greenwich Observatory into extinction have been denied by the U.K. Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC).

The media accounts have arisen from the ongoing debate within the British astronomical community concerning the best way forward for U.K. astronomy research in the 21st century. At the heart of the debate is the possibility of the U.K. becoming a member of the eight nation European Southern Observatory (ESO).

While many astronomers support an application for ESO membership, PPARC has made it clear that this will not be possible without significant cutbacks in existing facilities. Among those under threat are said to be Jodrell bank and the Anglo-Australian Telescope.

PPARC's position was summarised in a statement issued on July 17.

"We are currently faced with some tough decisions. To remain at the forefront over the next ten or twenty years, British astronomers need to continue to have access to the biggest and the best telescopes in the world, and it is PPARC's responsibility to ensure that this happens."

"A review by astronomers, not by PPARC, agreed that the European Southern Observatory (ESO) is a priority for British astronomy. The European Southern Observatory would enable British scientists to participate in the development of the new telescopes that will be essential in the next decade and beyond. It would allow them access to the best telescopes in the world. UK membership of ESO would have a profound impact on both UK and European astronomy for decades to come. Unfortunately, PPARC does not have the money needed to join the European Southern Observatory."

"The cost of joining ESO would be around 65 million, which might be spread over 10 years. PPARC is looking to Government for financial support to meet this cost. PPARC would then need to find savings in its annual budget to meet the running costs, estimated at 12 million each year."

"The decision to join ESO, when and if it is made, is so important that PPARC are considering every possible way of making money available. This means looking hard at the long term future of all existing telescopes."

"PPARC has been advised that the MERLIN network of telescopes, based at Jodrell Bank, may cease to be internationally competitive if it is not upgraded by 2005. It will cost up to 10 million to do the full upgrade. PPARC does not have this money either, and the upgrade is being examined by an international panel this autumn. It is inevitable, therefore, that the linked questions of the MERLIN upgrade, the long term future of Jodrell Bank, and UK membership of ESO should feature on the PPARC agenda."

The 76m Lovell Radio Telescope. Photo: Ian Morison
"No decisions have been made on any telescope, far less on telescope closures, and no major changes to the funding of existing telescopes can be expected for five years or so. If the UK were able to join ESO, which might be possible within the next year or so, this would be an opportunity for the Jodrell Bank Observatory to develop its future on a European or even global scale."

Sir Bernard Lovell, who founded Jodrell Bank in 1945, in order to study cosmic rays, commented, "The suggestion is to withdraw 2 million (of the money required) to run MERLIN. I don't understand why this has to be done. The optical community has access to telescopes in New South Wales, La Palma and the two 8 metre Geminis in Hawaii and Chile. We ought not to be in competition. The radio telescopes provide images comparable with the Hubble Space telescope."

However, Dr. Peter Wilkinson of Jodrell Bank was more philosophical about the media controversy.

"We share the ambition to join ESO, but the question is, should it be at any cost?" he said. "There is a very broad consensus in the astronomical community that if we want to get into ESO, the U.K. radio astronomy should not suffer."

"There is no immediate threat to the Lovell Telescope or MERLIN, but there is great uncertainty among all of the U.K. ground facilities which has been engendered by the proposal to join ESO," he added. "However, it is clear that PPARC does not yet know what will happen. A lot depends of the Government's Comprehensive Spending Review. Even then any changes will happen on a 5 year time frame."

Significantly, a 2M upgrade of the world-famous Lovell Telescope is about to begin. Once the giant 76 metre (250 ft) dish has been completely resurfaced, it will result in an expansion of the useable frequency range by a factor of four and an increase in the telescope's sensitivity at the key operational frequency of 5 GHz by a factor of five.

These improvements in both sensitivity and frequency range will extend the operational life of the telescope, taking it into a second half-century at the forefront of astronomical research.

A 10 million upgrade to the MERLIN network has also been proposed and will be studied by an international review panel later this year. 6 million of this would be used to replace existing microlinks with modern optical fibres, with the remainder allocated for replacement of one of MERLIN's radio telescopes.

Meanwhile, Jodrell Bank and MERLIN continue to probe the frontiers of the Universe. According to Dr. Wilkinson, U.K. radio astronomers will present new results on the rate of expansion of the Universe - the cosmological constant - at the International Astronomical Union's General Assembly in Manchester next month.

MERLIN (Multi Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network) is one of the most powerful radio telescopes in the world. It is operated by the University of Manchester on behalf of PPARC and is the radio astronomy cornerstone of the United Kingdom's astronomy programme. MERLIN is a network of 7 telescopes distributed over central England; several at and near Jodrell Bank in Cheshire, one at Knockin near the Welsh border, one at Defford in Worcestershire and the newest located just outside Cambridge.