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United Kingdom council to cease operating Mauna Kea telescopes


The United Kingdom’s Science and Technology Facilities Council has decided to stop operating two telescopes on a Hawaii volcano in coming years.

The council plans to negotiate with the University of Hawaii and with other potential new operators of the observatories, it said in a statement. The University of Hawaii owns leases for the land under all 13 telescopes at the top of Mauna Kea on the Big Island.

But it plans to decommission the observatories if an operator isn’t found for either one.

The council will stop supporting the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope, or UKIRT, in September 2013. Built in 1979, UKIRT is the largest telescope in the northern hemisphere dedicated solely to infrared astronomy.

The neighboring James Clerk Maxwell Telescope will continue operating through September 2014.

In 2009, the council recommended closing both telescopes by the end of this year, but it allowed for an extension pending a review by an independent advisory board.

Guenther Hasinger, the director of the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy, called the announcement “very sad” because the telescopes had produced excellent scientific work.

“We understand the funding difficulties but it was still a shock for the whole community,” Hasinger said Friday.

The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, which began operating in 1987, is in high demand among researchers. More scientists apply to observe the skies with the telescope than there are viewing slots.

Hasinger said UKIRT is just about the start a new survey of the northern skies. This project, which wouldn’t be finished by next September, complements another survey being conducted by Pan-STARRS, an optical telescope on Maui’s Haleakala volcano.

Hasinger said the telescopes would eventually have to be phased out in the long run as the introduction of new, more advanced observatories makes them outdated. But he said they could remain scientifically productive for at least a few more years.

The institute will help look for partners — both existing and new — keep the telescopes operating, Hasinger said. Countries in the Asia-Pacific region are among the potential partners.

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