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Brit stargazers get Gemini reprieve

Back on the 'scopes - for now

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British astronomers will continue to enjoy access to the Gemini telecope programme following an apparent Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) U-turn on its decision last month to withdraw from the consortium.

The shock announcement would have left the UK's stargazers unable to view the Northern Hemisphere sky with Gemini's 8.1m telescopes in Hawaii and the Chilean Andes, and came just as the programme is reaching its full potential after 15 years' development. The UK pumped £70m in construction and running costs into the programme.

The STFC's move, which saw the cancellation of all observation programmes on Gemini from 1 February, was an attempt to plug an £80m shortfall in its budget to 2011. The STFC asked its Gemini partners - Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile and the US - if it could offload Britain's 23.8 per cent share in the project by terminating access to Gemini South by 2009 while retaining access to the Frederick C Gillett (Gemini North in Hawaii) facility until the current contract's expiry in 2012.

The partners said no, and announced: "The Gemini Board determined during a special session on January 24, 2008 that a recently submitted proposal from the UK’s Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) for reduced ongoing participation in the Gemini partnership is not in the best interest of the observatory. As a result, the board concluded that the UK has withdrawn from the Gemini partnership."

However, the Gemini consortium earler this week offered this update: "The Board has received new correspondence from the STFC regarding the UK involvement in Gemini. The UK has committed to continue their Operations payments during 2008, and wishes to open negotiations with the Executive Agency and the Board to explore their options for continued participation in the Gemini Observatory.

"Therefore, the Board resolves to conditionally reinstate 2008 UK observing time allocations on both Gemini-North and Gemini-South."

The upshot of this is that UK observers will continue to enjoy Gemini at least until the end of the July semester, after which we'll have to wait and see.

The STFC is facing increasing pressure over its budget cuts, and is currently at the receiving end of a Downing Street e-petition protesting the effect on particle physics and astronomy funding.

As we reported last week, the petition calls on Gordon Brown to reverse the decision to slash funding, and has now attracted over 16,000 signatures. ®

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