Astronomers in the UK are shocked at plans by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) to withdraw from the Gemini Observatory, which consists of two eight-metre optical and infrared telescopes in Hawaii and Chile. The STFC, which intends to finalize its decision on 21 November, says it has to pull out from Gemini because of the “current financial climate”. The council has a total budget this year of £678m, but this will only increase in line with inflation in 2008 following the government’s recent comprehensive spending review.

The UK has invested a total of £35m in the Gemini North and Gemini South telescopes, which saw first light in 1999 and 2000 respectively. The country was a founding member of the project and has a 23% stake in the project. Withdrawing from the observatory would save the STFC about £4m per year in running costs. Although the UK has access to similar facilities in Chile operated by the European Southern Observatory, they provide no access to the northern skies.

“We had no warning of this decision and I can't find anyone else who has,” says Michael Rowan-Robinson from Imperial College London, who is president of the Royal Astronomical Society. “Our international partners in the Gemini project will be equally stunned.” He now intends to talk to the STFC and government ministers to try to get the decision reversed. One option could be to reduce the UK’s participation in the project or allow the UK to sell time on the telescope to other partners.

The plan to withdraw from Gemini was discussed at a meeting of the observatory’s international board earlier this week. According to an STFC spokesperson, the government’s spending review had been a “contributing factor” in the plan to withdraw from Gemini. The council, which has not given its partners formal notice of its withdraw plan, wants the pull-out to be achieved “in a way that minimises damage to our longstanding partnership and the impact on the observatory, its programme and the UK research community.” The STFC also plans to release full details of its forward programme early next month.