Letter: Astronomical future of Greenwich

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The Independent Online
Sir: Your feature "A closed subject?" (10 June) discusses the future of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, and the decision presented to John Battle, the minister for science, about whether to close one of these historic institutions, and if so which. Unfortunately, Professor Rowan-Robinson (Letters, 12 June) confuses the issue with thinking which fails to take account of recent developments and innovations in the subject.

The issue of which Royal Observatory to concentrate on has indeed been debated, but never openly, and the aborted Prior Options exercise of last year promised at least an open process with full information being presented and a reasonable timescale for a considered conclusion. Professor Rowan- Robinson refers indirectly to the Hough report of 1995, which did indeed recommend that astronomy technology should be concentrated in Edinburgh, but this report was rejected by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) of the time as not having investigated the issue in sufficient depth. A similarly-constituted panel this year has been given an equally short timescale, and though its conclusions are secret it may be that, not knowing the full history of the debate, it has endorsed the conclusions of the previous panel.

Professor Rowan-Robinson states that astronomy should be concentrated in Edinburgh since the future lies in the infra-red region of the spectrum. In 1991, a report to the National Research Council of the US (the Bahcall report) described the decade from 1990 to 2000 as "the Decade of the Infra- Red". But that decade is nearly over, and the main discoveries of the infra-red have been made. Are we, as the second strongest country in the subject, to spend the next decade simply trying to catch up with what the Americans have already done?

We should instead concentrate on the new technologies of the future - optical interferometry, adaptive optics, multi-mirror and segmented telescopes, use of optical fibres, and cheap and cost-effective telescopes. In all of these fields the Royal Greenwich Observatory has a prominent position.

Although I left the RGO a year ago I work closely with RGO staff, so I should declare an interest here. I work on a project to deliver low- cost but first-class telescopes to the UK market and for export. My project requires the expertise of the RGO in order to compete on the world stage. The Astronomer Royal is right to call on the Minister and on PPARC to consider this issue more fully, and to look to the future rather than to the past.


Project Scientist, New Generation Astronomical Telescopes Project

Liverpool John Moores University