July 9, 2008

UK Observatory Secures Necessary Funding

Funding for one of the world's leading radio astronomy centers has now been secured, according to Manchester University, the site's owner.

Jodrell Bank in Cheshire, an observatory that has made many key discoveries as well as tracking the moon landings, was in danger of closing due to uncertainty of proper funding for its key new project, the eMerlin network.

The network, which ties together radio dishes across the UK, now has the necessary money in place.

The observatory, home to the giant Lovell antenna, has experienced budgetary difficulties from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which oversees UK physics and astronomy.

The STFC questioned whether it would be possible to continue funding eMerlin after seeking to close an £80m hole in its 2009-11 finances.

But last week, the council underlined the scientific significance of eMerlin and the STFC indicated it would be making a contribution.

A deal has now been brokered that guarantees full funding for the next two years.

"There is a funding package that goes beyond that and we're still just finalizing the details, but it's all very positive for the observatory," said Professor Phil Diamond, director of the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics.

"There will be another of these Programmatic Reviews in two years' time and hopefully it won't be so traumatic as this one," said Diamond. "We have to show we are providing data and that we are world class."

eMerlin is the upgrade to a network of seven radio astronomy stations - from Jodrell and its 76m Lovell Telescope in the North West, to Lords Bridge just outside Cambridge in East Anglia. By linking the stations together using optic-fiber cables, eMerlin can mimic a single super-sensitive radio telescope spanning 217 km.

Diamond called the eMerlin the radio astronomy equivalent of the Hubble Space Telescope.

"We observe objects in the nearby Universe - stars being formed, stars dying - out to some of the most distant objects in the Universe."

He said due to its enormous power, "we will be able to see galaxies evolve, from their youth to their old age."

The lessons learned on eMerlin will be fed into the international Square Kilometer Array (SKA) project - a giant next-generation radio telescope, for which Jodrell is leading the development work.

"We are delighted that the STFC has recognized the scientific importance of eMerlin and the Square Kilometer Array, and that they have provided a commitment to fund these important projects, which will guarantee the future of Jodrell Bank," said Professor Alan Gilbert, president and vice-chancellor of Manchester University.


Image Caption: The Lovell and Mark II Telescopes at Jodrell Bank Observatory working together as part of MERLIN. Credit: Jodrell Bank Observatory (University of Manchester).


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STFC Funding Crisis: Astronomy