Britain's historic eye on the sky 'to go blind' as science cutbacks threaten Jodrell Bank


Last updated at 10:45 06 March 2008

It has been Britain's window on the stars for the last 50 years.

But the iconic Jodrell Bank observatory is now under threat after it emerged that a Government-backed funding body is prepared to pull the plug on a vital upgrade to one of its key projects, the Merlin telescopes.

Scientists have branded the proposals "ridiculous" and demanded a rethink from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), a government funding body with a £670 million budget.

Jodrell Bank, near Macclesfield in Cheshire, is the headquarters for Merlin - the Multi-Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network - a world-class series of seven giant astronomy telescopes sited from Cambridge to the Welsh borders.

It is the only ground-based network in the world to match the power of the orbital Hubble Telescope.

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Its power is achieved by linking the seven British telescopes, including Jodrell Bank's massive Lovell telescope, so they receive signals from space simultaneously.

By operating in unison up to 135 miles apart, the radio-telescopes can gather unrivalled data about remote galaxies.

The upgrade to Merlin - which has recently been begun with an injection of £8 million - would make the network 30 times as powerful and usher in a new age of space exploration.

Now, however, the Council has graded the project as one of its lowest priorities.

Jodrell Bank

Jodrell Bank

Experts say ending the funding for Merlin would also effectively spell the end of Jodrell Bank, which has been the source of many of the most important breakthroughs of the last half century.

These have included tracking the pioneering Sputnik satellite in 1957 to providing the most conclusive proof of Einstein's Theory of Relativity.

The Council had pledged annual running costs of £2.5 million. It has now advised that the funding be dropped.

Closing the site would save £2.5 million a year and would be just part of the Council's bid to deal with an £80 million shortfall in funding from the Government last year.

Professor Simon Garrington, who leads the Merlin project, said: "Merlin is the UK's national radio astronomy facility. It's unique."

Jodrell Bank director Phil Diamond said that the loss of e-Merlin, the upgraded version of the Multi-Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network (Merlin), would be catastrophic for radio astronomy. “It will essentially mean the STFC are closing down a field of astronomy. A lot of the scientific community would be outraged.”

Dr Ian Morison, one of the project's founders and still based at Jodrell Bank, added: "If funding was cut, it would put an end to Britain's role in radio astronomy."

David Willetts, the shadow innovation secretary, yesterday condemned the funding plans, saying: "The Government has failed to appreciate the damage that is being done to the science community and needs to think again."

Jodrell Bank

The Council announced it would be making substantial funding cuts at a meeting earlier this week and revealed that it had already compiled a comprehensive list of priorities.

Science Minister Ian Pearson warned last month that Britain should not allow itself to fall behind at a time when the world is "on the cusp" of a new era of space exploration.

The Tories have the backing of 16 MPs, including Labour MPs, for an early day motion condemning the impact of the cuts.

A final decision on which projects to be axed has yet to be made by the Council, but experts are concerned by how many projects it considers potentially expendable.

Professor Rowan-Robinson, president of the Royal Astronomical Society, said: "It's shocking to see so many projects on the STFC's low-priority list."

First observations were made at Jodrell Bank, which is run by the University of Manchester, in December 1945 and it has remained at the forefront of astronomical research to this day.

The Royal Astronomical Society has already warned that any cuts would leave a "severe dent" in Britain's reputation for astronomy.

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