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NOAO Newsletter - Director's Office - June 2000 - Number 62


NOAO and the Decade Survey

Sidney Wolff

In the previous article, Todd Boroson summarizes those recommendations of the Astronomy and Astrophysics Survey Committee (AASC) that apply directly to NOAO. I strongly endorse those recommendations and will do whatever I can to see that they are implemented. In particular, I am very pleased that the survey gave strong support to several initiatives that have appeared over the past two years in NOAO's own long-range plan (see also the report of the NOAO Users' Committee, which can be found at the end of the Director's Office Section of the Newsletter and which was prepared before the publication of the AASC report). I am even more pleased that the survey recommends changes in NOAO's mission and in the way that NOAO and the independent observatories work together in order to address the challenges presented by the increasingly ambitious questions that astronomers will attempt to answer over the next decade.


An Observing System

Perhaps even more significant than the AASC projects are the recommendations concerning the need for a systems approach to the observing facilities available to the US community. One of the true strengths of US astronomy is that it supports a diversity of approaches in a variety of institutional settings. However, many of the projects that we would like to carry out over the next decade transcend the resources of any single institution. Examples include not only the AASC recommended projects--the NVO, the LSST, and the GSMT--but also such efforts as developing robust multi-conjugate AO systems, optimizing the strategy for instrumenting large telescopes, providing for follow-up of the time-variable objects discovered by the LSST, the building of much larger formats for IR arrays, etc. Some degree of national coordination must become the norm if US astronomy is to be competitive internationally in this new century. What form that coordination should take, and how we ensure that individual creativity will still have room to flourish, are topics that have been debated not only within the decade survey committees, but also by NOAO and the independent observatories. The fact that we all recognize the need to work together in new ways makes me hopeful that we can put a mechanism in place--an effective national organization, as the decade survey calls it--that is truly national in scope and that engages not only NOAO but the independent observatories and the observing community as well. I will be working with the directors of the independent observatories and others in the community over the next several months to try to develop a way to coordinate large efforts in US astronomy.


AASC Recommended Projects

Several specific projects are highlighted in Todd's summary of the AASC recommendations, and NOAO will support all of them. Accompanying articles by Steve Strom describe in more detail some of the progress we have already toward realizing them. Here I will only summarize the status briefly:


Giant Segmented-Mirror Telescope (GSMT)

There are several technical issues that must be resolved before a 30-m class telescope can be built with confidence about cost, performance, and schedule. NOAO, working closely with Gemini and AURA, has sponsored a number of workshops on science requirements as well as technical issues, and we are currently working out the costs and schedule for the technical studies that will be required. We have also had informal discussions with the other groups currently exploring 30- to 100-m telescopes about optimizing our collective investment in technology development and sharing the results of the studies that we each commission independently.


Large-Aperture Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST)

An optical design for a wide-field survey telescope has been developed by Roger Angel (Steward Observatory), Ted Dunham ( Lowell), and collaborators. An initial working group meeting, jointly sponsored by Steward, Lowell, and NOAO, was held in Tucson to explore the science programs that could be accomplished with such a telescope and to begin to flow down the science requirements to the telescope, instrument(s), and data handling systems. With the support for this concept from the survey committee, we will now begin to involve the community more broadly in working out the science requirements and developing a fully costed proposal for this facility.


Telescope System Instrumentation Program (TSIP)

Equipping the new generation of large telescopes with state-of-the-art instrumentation must be one of the highest priority tasks for this decade. The independent observatories and NOAO have been working on a white paper for how to implement a program that would provide observing time to the community in return for support of major instruments at the independent observatories. The ability to access time on multiple telescopes will benefit the entire community. Open access is the key to ensuring that a complete range of observing capabilities is available to US observers. No single telescope will be able to address the full suite of astrophysical problems because each large telescope is likely to have only a few (two or three) highly capable, facility class instruments at any given time. The reason is only partly due to limitations in funding. Instruments for 8-m class telescopes typically cost $35M or even more, and it simply makes no economic sense to have many of these sitting around unused. Also, the capacity for building major instruments is limited, and most institutions can undertake only one or possibly two instruments on this scale at any one time. The consequence is that each large telescope is likely to provide a limited number of options in terms of field of view, wavelength coverage, and angular and spectral resolution. The ability to access the full range of capabilities, no matter where they are located, will therefore benefit all astronomers.


National Virtual Observatory (NVO)

The NVO concept has been developed by Alex Szalay, Tom Prince, and others, as well as by the theory panel of the AASC. Several workshops have already been held, including one at NOAO, to develop an implementation plan and schedule for the NVO. The goal of the NVO is the creation of an information infrastructure for astronomya system of federated multi-wavelength databases that can be accessed and queried remotely with a common user interface. This virtual observatory will be as effective a tool for discovery as the physical observatories that we already operate.

Ground-based astronomy lags the space community in terms of archiving data, and many issues remain to be resolved about what types of ground-based data have sufficient multiple uses to be candidates for archiving, how requirements for making data archivable will affect observing protocols and calibration procedures, etc. To begin exploring these issues, NOAO has initiated two programs that require that data be archived and made available to the community: 1) several surveys are currently in progress at NOAO on objects ranging from nearby stars to galaxies at high redshifts, and 2) we are making time available to support the SIRTF Legacy program and large Chandra programs. These two initiatives will help us gain experience in developing observing protocols, constructing pipelines, and querying archived datasets for the types of targeted surveys (as opposed to all-sky surveys like Sloan and 2MASS) that are likely to be undertaken by the NOAO user community.


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