Summary of the OPTICON Meeting to assess the case for a Working Group on the Future Development of Medium-Sized Telescopes operated by Europe, held at ENS Lyon on 14-15 December 2000

Present: Prof G Gilmore (Chairman), Dr G Andreoni (ESO), Dr A Aparicio (IAC), Dr M Auriere (OMP/TBL), Prof R Bacon (INSU-CNRS), Dr W Boland (NWO/NOVA), Dr G Debouzy (INSU-CNRS), Prof G Fahlman (CFHT), Dr R Gredel (Calar Alto), Dr E Harlaftis (NOA/Greece), Dr J Melnick (ESO), Dr G Monnet (ESO),Dr P Murdin (PPARC), Prof B Nordstrom (EAS), Dr E Oliva (TNG), Dr V Piirola (NOT), Dr R Rutten (ING), Dr J-P Sivan (OHP), Dr C Tinney (AAO), Dr C Vincent (Minutes Secretary)

Apologies: Prof M Rodono (CNAA)


1.1 The Chairman gave the background to the meeting, noting that many of the medium-sized telescopes operated by European countries were facing similar challenges. In the era of 8m-class telescopes there was a need to re-examine the role of the smaller telescopes to ensure that the investment in large facilities was maximised and that the potential of the smaller facilities was not lost. The aim of the meeting was to develop specific proposals which could form the basis for an OPTICON Working Group.


2.1 Dr Murdin's [powerpoint] presentation considered the definition of medium-sized facilities which might be used as the basis for a Working Group. He noted that there were many facilities which could be included in a definition, but the number was not precise. One definition might be facilities which were nationally, bi-nationally or internationally owned and operated by European countries, were between 1m and 5m in size of primary mirror and were situated on a mountain-top site. Their function varied considerably but many were general purpose facilities with a range of instrument capabilities and increasingly providing support to larger telescopes or other parts of their owner's national astronomy programme. It was clear that many of the telescopes were considered to be world-class and highly productive and some had a level of financial security for at least the medium-term. It was also clear that some facilities had a key role to play in areas such as the study of variable stars, extra-solar planets, near-earth objects and survey science.

2.2 A key feature for some was the provision of access for training and for public outreach programmes. It was suggested that, whereas to date, training had been provided through access to 1m-class telescopes, this might progress to 2-3m-class, as the focus for world-class science moved onto 8m-class facilities.


3.1 Prof Nordstrom presented the outcome of the ESO Users Committee poll, which was held during 1998/1999, as the VLT began operation. In summary, this had confirmed the user community's need for smaller telescopes in the era of the 8m-class facilities and highlighted the science which they could achieved and which where they might remain competitive. An MSWORD summary is available here.


4.1 The meeting included presentations from a wide-range of medium-sized facilities, setting out their mode of operation, instrument suites and plans for future development. In some cases these presentations included the cost of operating the facilities. It was clear that the facilities covered a wide range of science and training applications and there was little co-ordination with respect to operation or development. Access to some facilities was already open to the entire international community but, usually in these cases, no support was provided for observers to travel to the telescope. An MSWORD presentation on the Telescope Bernard Lyot is available.


5.1 The Chairman emphasised that, in any consideration of the future role of medium-sized telescopes, the case for the science should be emphasised. In his view there was a very good science case for continued access to medium-sized telescopes. Although, in many cases, strict financial constraint was necessary, this should not be primarily at the cost of scientific productivity or excellence. He believed that there was general acceptance within the European astronomical community that there should be greater collaboration and co-ordination between facilities. The interest shown in the present meeting served to emphasise this.

5.2 OPTICON provided a route by which this could be fostered and the possibilities of additional funding from the EU explored. For example:

5.2.1 greater use might be made of the EU funds available for international access to facilities, initially limited to within the EU but with the possibility of broadening this to European owned or partnered facilities world-wide in the future. Access might be through agreement to 'barter' time, to offer time free of charge for which support was received from other sources (such as the EU) or to truly give away time, where this was a means to an end such as education;

5.2.2 access to RTD funds for collaborative instrumentation programmes. It was noted that one proposal for funds had already been made to the EU for support for a common spectrograph but the potential for co-ordination of programmes was largely untapped. It was essential to consider the whole picture of instrument provision against science programme to see where capability and expertise might be best developed;

5.2.3 funds to set up training programmes or promote access to the telescopes by students. For example, Dr Oliva noted that the TNG might consider using students to provide service observing. If these were from outside Italy then support for them might be sought from the EU;

The Chairman emphasised the need to be ambitious in what was sought and not to be limited to what might be possible now but to consider how the needs of the European astronomy programme might shape future policy for EU fund availability.

5.3 The concept of the European Northern Observatory (ENO), as set out by the IAC was one example of how collaboration and co-operation might be taken forward in a practical way. However, the interpretation of what was meant by the ENO differed between members. Whilst attendees welcomed the initiative, it was felt to be too early to endorse anything more than the concept, but this would be considered as part of the input to the Working Group to be created by this meeting.

5.4 Dr Gredel set out his proposal for opening access to facilities. He suggested that around 20% of the available time might be set aside for access by less astronomically-rich countries with support in the form of the cost of operations being provided by the EU. This resource could be used to pay for service observing, removing the need for astronomers to travel to the telescopes. Such a scheme could be developed to include, for example, collaboration between similar-sized facilities in their instrumentation programme, e.g. between Calar Alto and the ING. Attendees welcomed Dr Gredel's proposal and agreed to take this into account in setting out the remit for the Working Group. Dr Fahlman noted that broadening access to less experienced observers had a cost in terms of training and possibly increased support from operational budgets which could affect efficiency. He urged that this cost be taken into consideration.

5.5 In the longer term it was suggested that co-operation between facilities might lead to co-operation in the process of application for time, decreasing the need for separate time allocation committees and fostering a multi-wavelength approach to time allocation. Attendees agreed that this was probably too great a step for the initial remit of a Working Group.


6.1 Attendees were asked to send copies of their viewgraphs to the Chairman for distribution and placing on the OPTICON web-site.

6.2 It was agreed that, on Dr Murdin's suggestion, four sub-groups were set up to consider different areas of possible co-operation and collaboration. One of the aims of these groups would be to set out the principles for proposals which could be taken to the wider community and funding agencies. The groups were:

6.2.1 A group to consider a system of instrument (hardware and software) co-ordination and development by:

  • i. documenting the present situation;
  • ii. discussing plans at regular intervals;
  • iii. input of proposals to observatory user communities
  • iv. develop EU RTD proposals

    Action: Rutten (Co-ordinator), Gredel, Melnick, Sivan, Harlaftis, Piirola, Tinney, Monet and Auriere

    6.2.2 A group to consider a system to extend telescope access through:

  • i. considering to whom access might be offered;
  • ii. accessing additional resources from the EU;
  • iii. giving resources to observers as telescope time (service observing) and travel and subsistence expenses and for post-observation processing.

    Action: Gredel (Co-ordinator), Rutten, Melnick, Oliva, Auriere

    6.2.3 A group to consider a system to exchange time between telescopes, reviewing current arrangements and ideas for how to barter time, to build on a coordinated instrumentation programme.

    Action: Boland (Co-ordinator), Murdin, Debouzy, Nordstrom, Sivan, Bacon, Fahlman, IAC/Aparicio

    6.2.4 A group to consider systems for enhancing the education and training role of facilities, considering both policies and new funding sources Michel Dennefeld accepted the Chair's invitation to join the Working Group, and to co-ordinate this specific sub-group

    Action: Dennefeld (Co-ordinator), Sivan, Gredel, Nordstrom, Oliva, IAC.

    6.3 It was agreed that All of these groups should take as a basis the principle of seeking new and more efficient operating modes and should take account of the pressure to deliver savings in operations.

    6.4 The members of each group were asked to provide information to their co-ordinator to allow the further consideration of their remits at the next meeting of the OPTICON Medium-Sized Telescopes Group.

    6.5 The membership of each sub-group is not exclusive: each interested party is welcome to contribute to any or all sub-groups.

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