The UK has been reinstated as a full member of the Gemini Observatory following an agreement yesterday between the Gemini board and the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). The new deal appears to reverse a decision made three months ago by the STFC to pull the UK out of the observatory — and means that UK astronomers can now participate in all future observing semesters at the Gemini telescopes in Hawaii and Chile.

The initial withdrawal from Gemini came as a surprise to both UK astronomers and partner countries within the observatory. The exit was blamed on a £80m shortfall in STFC budget that came to light late last year. A 25% reduction in university grants for particle physics and astronomy and pullout from the International Linear Collider were also announced in December 2007.

This is a sensible way to deal with this, as pulling out altogether would have meant penalties, which would have been the same as the subscription itself Michael Rowan-Robinson, Royal Astronomical Society

Withdrawing from the observatory would have saved the STFC about £4m per year in running costs. But the STFC now plans to recoup some of this money by selling some of its observing time to partner countries within the project.

23% stake in Gemini

The Gemini Observatory consists of two 8 m telescopes that work in the optical and infrared regions. The UK, which was a founding member and has a 23% stake in the project, has invested a total of £35m in Gemini North in Hawaii and Gemini South in Chile.

“This is very good news” says Michael Rowan-Robinson from Imperial College London, who is president of the Royal Astronomical Society. “This is a sensible way to deal with this, as pulling out altogether would have meant penalties, which would have been the same as the subscription itself.”

The STFC science board will announce on Monday 3 March final plans of which projects will be affected by the £80m funding shortfall.