Observatory spies work

Redundant astronomers fight back with new high-tech telescope sales scheme

The Royal Greenwich Observatory looks set to fend off its closure threat with plans to build a new generation of £1m-plus telescopes from a manufacturing centre in Merseyside.

The future of the Cambridge-based observatory has hung in the balance since the Government approved plans to create a new Astronomy Technical Centre at Edinburgh.

But The Engineer has learned that Britain’s oldest observatory now looks set to get official backing for its plans to build and market its high-tech New Generation Astronomical Telescopes to academic institutions and overseas governments.

Greenwich development boss Neil Parker unveiled his business plan on Monday this week to Peter Williams, Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council chairman. Early indications are that the plan will get approval when it goes to the full PPARC council on 8 October.

The plans involve turning the observatory into a company limited by guarantee, with no shareholders and with revenue ploughed straight back into the company’s operations.

In effect, profits from telescope sales will go to finance work to boost public understanding of astronomy.

The new generation telescopes, which can be up to 5m in diameter, will be assembled by Telescope Technology, linked with Liverpool John Moores University, in a plant with enough capacity to make up to 16 of them a year. The smallest, 2m-diameter units could generate more than £1m of orders, securing dozens of jobs at local suppliers.

Local content – mainly from the Merseyside area – will be about 95% by value, in line with conditions of a European Union grant to set up the manufacturing company.

Job losses at the observatory in Cambridge, though, are still a certainty. Some 40 of the 119 staff will be made redundant, with about 20 transferring to the Edinburgh site.

The first new generation telescope unit ordered will be installed for a research institute in Poona, India, at the end of next year, with a second to be installed in La Palma, in the Canaries, for the Liverpool John Moores University.

The Greenwich Observatory turns over around £1m per year, with 80% of this income coming from work for PPARC’s telescopes in Hawaii and the Canary Islands.