The world’s largest and most productive dedicated infrared observatory just went on the market in an unprecedented attempt to try and prevent it from being shut down and dismantled. In a bold move, the directors of the United Kingdom InfraRed Telescope (UKIRT), based on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, have just released a prospectus detailing the telescope’s impressive achievements and capabilities in the hopes that they can find sponsorship and save the observatory from certain doom. That may sound melodramatic, but doom genuinely is the most fitting description.
UKIRT’s death knell has, in fact, already been tolled. At the start of Summer, the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council announced that it would be terminating funding and that all telescope operations were to cease by September 2013. The UKIRT board released an official statement explaining their grim disappointment over the decision, and morale has been low for everyone involved with the telescope ever since.
Unfortunately, since their formation in 2007, the STFC have seemingly been determined to rid the UK of its telescope access. Another casualty was the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT). Constructed at Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales, the AAT was originally built and operated in partnership between Australia and the UK, but since it’s 36th birthday in 2010 it has been owned and funded solely by Australia. The AAT is still the largest optical telescope in Australia and it continues to the crown jewel of the Australian Astronomical Observatory. Sadly, the future for UKIRT looks rather more bleak.
Should they fail to find funding to continue it’s operation, then in September 2013 UKIRT will have to be dismantled and erased from Mauna Kea. Under the agreement originally made with the Hawaiian government, any telescope no longer in operation must be removed, and the mountain must be returned to its natural state. This once proud telescope will simply be no more – a heartbreaking prospect in the eyes of a great many astronomers worldwide.
The most tragic part is that UKIRT is actually at its most productive right now. After being the world’s largest dedicated infrared observatory for over three decades, UKIRT is currently boasting a record level of productivity. Being as it’s exceptionally cheap to run and maintain (compared to other world-leading telescopes, it costs little more than pocket change), it’s easily one of the most productive telescopes in the world. And the directors are quite literally offering it to anyone in the world who may have the money to finance it. A dramatic move – no world class telescope has ever been simply offered up for sale on the global market before. Now, all the astronomical community can do is to hope that someone is willing to buy it.
Whether you happen to be a billionaire playboy philanthropist interested in owning a telescope, or just curious to know more about UKIRT, their prospectus is online for all to see.