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NOAO Annual Report FY 1999


US Gemini Program (USGP)

As work on the Gemini North telescope approaches the transition from construction phase to operations phase, the Gemini liaison activities of the USGP have similarly begun to change focus. While much work remains on the initial complement of Gemini instruments, and even as the new instruments that are part of the ongoing program are beginning to take shape, much of the planning activities are now concerned with the support of US users of Gemini. Many different aspects of support must be considered, from the process by which astronomers are awarded time, through such issues as the information that they need to plan their observations, the software that they will use to reduce their data, and the development of an advisory structure more attuned to the users of an active observing facility.

During FY 1999, many parts of the Gemini instrumentation program went from ``design" and ``concept" activities to "fabrication" and "integration." The Near-IR Imager, which is being built at the Institute for Astronomy of the University of Hawaii, will be the first facility instrument delivered to Gemini. Its development explored some of the difficulties of the distributed nature of the Gemini instrumentation program, with arrays and array controllers supplied by NOAO, tested as a subsystem in Tucson, and then shipped to the IfA for integration into the instrument. This integration is currently proceeding and, following the subsequent testing, delivery to Gemini is expected within a few months. The instrument with the most visible problems during the past year was the Near-IR Spectrograph (GNIRS). At the start of FY 1999, it was reported by NOAO that the instrument was very much behind schedule and over budget. Work was halted, the management of the instrument was restructured, and the instrument design was changed to address some technical problems that had become apparent. After most of a year that included a joint review by AURA (including representatives reporting to AURA, the International Gemini Project Office [IGPO], and NOAO), a restart review that covered technical and management issues, and a review of the USGP's management of instrument procurements, work on GNIRS is now again proceeding, with delivery expected in mid-2002.

The Mid-IR Imager (Thermal Region Camera system, known as T-ReCS) is one of the final instruments of the initial complement. The supplier of this instrument is the University of Florida. Although this camera was specified for imaging only, the optical design of the instrument lends itself to the very simple and straightforward addition of a spectroscopic mode. Charles Telesco, the PI of this effort, presented a very compelling case to the Gemini Science Committee (GSC) for the inclusion of this capability for a small increase in budget. This proposal was endorsed by the GSC, and this instrument now includes a spectroscopic mode. T-ReCS has recently passed its critical design review and is beginning fabrication.

Other first generation instrumentation work includes the detector/controller development and support that was mentioned above. This effort, led by NOAO for both optical and near-IR instruments, has gone quite well. The foundry run program to produce InSb arrays for the near-IR instrument had remarkable success in terms of the yield of devices delivered. The CCD and CCD controller effort successfully integrated hardware from San Diego State University, software from a group at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, and software developed in-house into a spectrograph camera designed and fabricated as a joint UK/Canada project.

Even before the initial instrumentation has been delivered, concept development and planning is proceeding for the instruments of the ongoing program. The first of these is the Near-IR coronagraph/imager. The definition of this instrument emerged from the scientific discussions at Gemini's Abingdon workshop, but has changed somewhat due to interest expressed by NASA in funding a very similar capability. NASA would like to see a small-field 1--5 m coronagraphic imager optimized for studies of protostellar and protoplanetary systems. As a result of the interest expressed by NASA, a proposal was written that merges the two concepts, which are not very far apart anyway. This proposal has been funded and $4.6 million is now available to procure this instrument. This is a very exciting development not only because it provides significant outside funding for the Gemini instrumentation program, but also because it represents an opportunity to strengthen the connection between US groundbased and spacebased astronomy.

After an aggressive adaptive optics program, probably the next strongest recommendation from the Abingdon workshop for the ongoing instrumentation program was for the development of a Near-IR multi-object spectroscopic capability. While this was initially conceived as two IR Multi-Object Spectrographs (MOS), one optimized for wide-field seeing-limited applications and one optimized for AO-corrected narrow-field work, the delay in GNIRS and the long lead time to develop an instrument of this scale has caused the Gemini partners to rethink this strategy. As a result, a call went out for a less ambitious MOS that could be built quickly and delivered to Gemini South by the end of 2002. Proposals from Australia and the US will be funded to develop conceptual designs, with the goal of selecting one of the two proposals early next year.

The increased effort related to the beginning of operations for Gemini North has been concentrated in three areas: user support, data reduction, and the proposal/TAC process. The user support model adopted by Gemini and the national Gemini offices is to use an electronic help desk to create and maintain a distributed database for answering questions from proposers and users. Each office will have initial responsibility for all queries from its national community, and ultimate responsibility for some of the instruments and Gemini-related facilities. The US will be primarily responsible for the instruments NIRI, GNIRS, T-ReCS, and for the IRAF data reduction software. The approach that USGP is taking is to designate a ``mirror" scientist for each instrument. These mirror scientists will have responsibility for supporting the instrument using the help desk, ensuring that information is accurate and available to the community, and helping to specify and test the data reduction software. This effort will be distributed between the two NOAO nighttime sites, Tucson and La Serena.

In addition to providing support for data reduction software, the US has primary responsibility for providing it. During the past year, an effort has been initiated to identify the data reduction requirements of the Gemini instruments (with particular emphasis on those to be available during the first semester of operations), to identify the pieces that are not currently available in IRAF, to assess the effort needed to provide those, and to begin the work.

Over the past several years, the process by which NOAO receives and processes observing proposals and evaluates them through a peer committee has been evolving toward a structure that will support Gemini and the large telescopes that will be providing national access time through the Facilities Instrumentation Program. The changes include an electronic proposal form based on the LaTeX form that has been in use by the NOAO user community for a number of years; a new, Web-based interface to that form; a mostly automated process for receipt of electronic proposals via the Internet; a new database with tools for access to enable reporting and TAC activities; and a TAC structure that is organized around subject matter rather than telescope or site. Along with these changes are policies that allow proposers to structure their proposals around the scientific program rather than the observing run. Proposals may now contain requests for observing runs on multiple telescopes at multiple sites, including the national access time available at the independent observatories.

Another activity that was led by the USGP staff during the past year was the initiation of the NOAO Survey Program. This program grew out of a recommendation from a workshop that NOAO held in 1997 to identify requirements for the effective use of large telescopes. A community-wide group of participants recognized that numerous large-scale surveys were needed to support science on large telescopes. Such surveys would produce samples to be studied in more detail or depth, provide complementary and calibration observations, and support large telescopes with preparatory material. It was recommended that NOAO initiate a program using existing telescopes to provide this capability. That program began this year with a call for survey proposals.

Survey proposals are differentiated from standard proposals in that they require large amounts of statistically complete and homogeneous data, and enable extensive archival research. They are required to use (and develop, if necessary) a well-tested and well-documented data reduction pipeline, and make their data available one year or less after the observations. In return, successful proposers are awarded a substantial amount of time to complete the survey. The response to the initial call was substantial, and almost the entire 20% of the time on the major NOAO telescopes was awarded. This program will continue with new calls issued on an annual basis.


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