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Better vision. By joining ESO, British astronomers will get access to the Very Large Telescope in Chile.

U.K. Joins Astronomy Powerhouse

Today's trendy astronomer uses an 8-meter telescope--4-meter telescopes are just so '80s. That's why the United Kingdom is now joining the European Southern Observatory (ESO), which runs a clutch of 8-meter telescopes in Chile. To finance the deal, announced Wednesday, Britain will drastically cut its contribution to the Anglo-Australian Observatory and several other facilities.

ESO is Europe's principal astronomy umbrella; its pride and joy is the Very Large Telescope (VLT), a set of four 8.2-meter telescopes at Cerro Paranal in the Atacama desert. Britain was party to discussions in the '50s that ultimately spawned ESO, but it pulled out at the last minute, opting instead to team up with Australia in the highly successful Anglo-Australian Observatory in Siding Springs, Australia. ESO currently has nine member countries; Portugal was the latest one to join.

Britain already has access to 8-meter telescopes in the form of the twin Gemini telescopes in Hawaii and Chile, built in collaboration with the U.S. and several other countries. But reviews suggested that without more access to such giants, Britain would rapidly slide down the astronomy rankings, says Ian Halliday, chief executive of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), the U.K.'s astronomy and particle physics funder. So astronomers started pleading for ESO membership 2 years ago, he says--and the government has listened.

In addition to regular dues, Britain faces what ESO director-general Catherine Cesarsky calls an "entrance fee," "equivalent to what they would have paid if they had been building the VLT with us," she says. The total tab comes to $14 million a year for 10 years, and although the government will foot part of the bill, some $7 million annually will have to come out of PPARC's own budget, starting around 2005. On top of that, the U.K. is chipping in it's new Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope, to sit alongside the VLT, as a payment in kind.

PPARC's cash share will come from winding back its commitments in other facilities, most significantly in the Anglo-Australian Observatory, Halliday says. Cuts will also be made at the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope and the U.K. Infrared Telescope, both in Hawaii, and the Isaac Newton group of telescopes in the Canary Islands.

The U.K.'s entry is a good deal for ESO, says Cesarsky: Its coffers swollen with British money, the organization will be better placed to play an important role in the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, a planned U.S.-European network of 64 12-meter radio telescopes that will produce images of young galaxies 10 times crisper than images from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Related sites

The European Southern Observatory
The Very Large Telescope project
The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council