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Response to the 2003 Users Committee Recommendations

Updated September, 2004

Responses in bold blue text.

Updated responses in italicized purple text.

The Users Committee met at a critical time. We are seeing the seeds of the planning programs being planted for the next generation of user facilities, LSST and GSMT. We are seeing the growth of the Data Products Program, which will multiply the knowledge gained from observing at NOAO facilities to a much large user community. And we are seeing the effects of developing these new capabilities within a fixed NOAO budget. The stresses are great, and the feedback at this time is essential to the optimum development of NOAO. The Users Committee has provided constructive and detailed feedback, which will aid us in transforming the national observatory, just as the decadal survey envisaged.

The University of Maryland / NOAO MOU

Recommendation 1.1:

The Committee strongly urges that a complete and careful review of $6000 per night figure of merit be made and, if warranted, a more appropriate rate of exchange be established and used in any final MOU.

The AURA Observatories Council will review the rate, using suitable comparators, such as the ARC, WIYN, and Hale telescopes. But let’s not forget that telescope operations costs are fixed, and revenue is very hard to come by for both NSF and universities. For example, the shortfall between AURA’s proposed NOAO budget for FY2004 and the expected federal government appropriation through NSF is $2400 per night of 4 meter time on our 2.4 telescopes of that aperture.

Update September 2004:

Recognizing that the University of Maryland partnership agreement was based on the operational cost of the Mayall telescope, and following the report of the NOAO Users Committee 2003, the NOAO Program Review Panel (PRP) requested a price review of the Mayall telescope partnership agreement, focusing on the value of an observing night. “The review should take the form of a comparison with related partnerships at other observatories with 4 meter class telescopes. The PRP wishes to hear from NOAO as an outcome of the AURA Observatories Council meeting this month how OC would empanel such a small expert review and ensure that the Users Committee is involved or consulted.”

The Observatories Council appointed a subcommittee for this review. Data were solicited and obtained from ARC, CFHT, Palomar, and WIYN. The following is their recommendation, which was adopted by the OC:

  1. The Mayall and Blanco should be valued separately, recognizing the fact that operating costs at CTIO are higher than those at KPNO. From the purchaser's perspective the higher per-night costs at Blanco are compensated to some extent by the larger fraction of clear nights.
  2. For each telescope estimate:
    Total scheduled nights per year, N = 365 - [engineering nights] Total operating cost per year, C = $2770K (FY04 Mayall) $3560K (FY04 Blanco)
  3. Estimate an effective annual instrumentation development cost, D.
  4. The partner price per night (P) should be in the bounds:
    C/N < P < (C+D)/N.
    NOAO should negotiate agreements within these bounds, negotiating in best faith for the best price achievable.

NOAO proposes to renegotiate the University of Maryland partnership agreement, following these guidelines, when the current version expires in August 2006.

Recommendation 1.2:

The Committee recommends NOAO and the NSF examine the merits of requiring a “nuts and bolts” deliverable, where cost and value are readily understood, as opposed to a more ethereal “bits and bytes” approach where the benefits to the user community are difficult to quantify.

We accept that we should examine the merits of requiring a hardware deliverable. But the arguments in favor of an end-to-end approach are exceedingly strong, as the Users Committee recognizes in recommendation 11.3. A project like NEWFIRM should be delivered with its data pipeline. Surveys conducted with NEWFIRM, but without a pipeline delivered at first light, would encounter the very difficulties the committee was most concerned about in its 2001 report. Instrumentation partnerships should engage the strengths of both parties, and often universities’ greatest strengths are young people who are brilliant in software, and also gain from the discipline of a project such as this.

Update September 2004:

The two FTEs at the University of Maryland working on the NEWFIRM pipeline are well integrated into the Data Products team.

Recommendation 1.3:

The Committee unanimously recommends that any University of Maryland/NOAO MOU preserve, at a minimum, the current total uncommitted fraction of the available science time per semester.

The current committed fraction of KPNO telescope time is within the caps of 20% survey time and 25% Director’s Discretionary Time. The signed agreement with Maryland can be accommodated within these limits for 2003B through 2006A. A renegotiated MOU could also be accommodated within these limits, provided survey and multiwavelength programs are not expanded much beyond their present levels, and could come into effect at any time between 2004B and 2006A that is acceptable to the University, NOAO, and NSF.

Update September 2004:

Telescope access metrics will be presented at the October 2004 meeting. The outlook for 2005 and 2006 is for increased user access, not decreased.

Recommendation 1.4:

The Committee requests that NOAO clarify and articulate the model for implementing 4-m instrument and scheduling access under terms of the pending MOU. The Committee also requests additional information on how any potential Maryland arrangement would impact the NOAO TAC process and metrics of NOAO scientific productivity.


Recommendation 1.5:

The Committee recommends that NOAO maintain the NEWFIRM science advisory committee throughout the design, build, and commissioning phases of this instrument development project.


Desirable Instrument Evolution of the 4-m Telescopes During the Next 5-yr Horizon

Recommendation 2.1:

NOAO should make full use of the Users Committee to review and vet the science, operational, and structural impacts that any solicitation and subsequent MOUs may have on the users of NOAO facilities and services. Such interaction should occur early in the process. The Committee urges NOAO to respond to this high priority action.

Instrumentation partners are selected by an independent panel, which reviews all proposals. If a Blanco instrumentation partner is selected as a result of the current AO, the draft MOU can be presented to the Users Committee at its 2004 meeting.

Update September 2004:

The Blanco Instrumentation Review Panel's report will be presented to the October 2004 meeting, together with an outline of a possible MOU.

Recommendation 2.2:

The Committee encourages NOAO to aggressively market all announcements of opportunity for partnering to the broadest community possible.

Accepted. The current announcement of opportunity for the Blanco Instrumentation Partnership was presented in the December 2003 NOAO Newsletter. It is advertised on the NOAO and CTIO WWW pages, by inclusion in the AAS electronic announcement email exploder service, by distribution of a flyer at the 2004 winter AAS meeting, and by direct personal contacts with US instrument groups.

Recommendation 2.3:

NOAO should consider revisiting its plans and timelines for the acquisition of wide-field optical capability for the Blanco 4-m. The Committee asserts that instrumentation needs must have a clear science case, be responsive to the need of the community, and be procured through a competitive process. There is not Committee consensus to fully endorse the current course of action.

The terms of the current AO are highly consistent with these requirements. There are no restrictions on the type of instrument that can be proposed, however in order to build on the Blanco telescope's particular strengths, we see a special opportunity to exploit the wide field capability of the prime or RC focus of the telescope. Additionally, any proposed instrument should be consistent with a system-wide view of facilities available to the US community, in particular those in the southern hemisphere Following discussion with the Committee, the draft Blanco AO was slipped 3 months to allow more time to implement recommendation 2.2 and for potential partners to develop their response.

The U.S. Gemini Support Model, as implemented by the Gemini Science Center

Recommendation 3.1:

The Committee is pleased with the current status of the NGSC and encourages full NOAO support for this critical community resource.

Recommendation 3.2:

The Committee endorses the concept of classical observing at Gemini and encourages the NGSC to explore creative mechanisms to facilitate such opportunities.

The current ratio of classical:queue observing at Gemini reflects user demand in relation to the present system. We accept the recommendation to explore new modes, so as to give users more options.

Recommendation 3.3:

The Committee notes that modern technologies have made “eavesdropping” a practical and efficient way to conduct remote observing. The NGSC, in consultation with the Gemini Observatory, should consider how best to provide this capability to the United States user community.

Recommendations accepted. The Gemini Remote Observing Center is a pilot project for this observing mode.

The CTIO/KPNO Facilities in the Context of the US System

Recommendation 4.1:

The Committee is receptive to, and largely endorses the proposed NOAO arrangement regarding the Penn State Exo-Planet Tracker on the 2.1-m telescope. However, the Committee believed that the number of 2.1-m guaranteed nights (49, or about 10% of available over 1.5 years) along with a 1-to-1 match with NOAO users might be excessive. The Committee advises NOAO to track subscription rates for this instrument and monitor scientific output.


Recommendation 4.2:

The Committee endorses continuing the current use arrangement for FLAMINGOS and encourages NOAO to reach agreement with the University of Florida on extending the MOU.


Recommendation 4.3:

The Committee suggests that NOAO consider studying how to facilitate synoptic observations and assess the future opportunities that optical interferometry may provide.

This matter is referred to the forthcoming System Workshop. NOAO policy for target of opportunity observations is to be found on the observatory websites. NOAO’s interferometry expert can demonstrate to the committee at its next meeting that a current generation US facility for interferometry would not be internationally competitive. ESO’s VLTI is the best facility for interferometry worldwide for the foreseeable future. An advance on it would require planning of decadal survey scope.

Update September 2004:

The system workshop participants chose to spend their time on other issues than synoptic observations. However, note that some of the smaller telescopes funded by the new NSF program PREST may be particularly well suited for some types of synoptic observations. For example, the PROMPT telescope array, a set of six 20-inch telescopes that will obtain multiwavelength images in a queue scheduled mode, will provide 10% of the time to the broad community starting in mid-2006.

NOAO’s input to the OIR Long Range Planning Committee will include synoptic and interferometric concepts for future facilities, which should be studied in advance of the next decadal survey.

Importance of CTIO/KPNO Facilities in Their Present and Near-Term Roles

Recommendation 5.1:

The Committee recognizes the highly competitive scientific and instrument environment present in the astronomical community and urges NOAO to identify and pursue selected areas of expertise and commitment. Further, we suggest that NOAO review how 4-m wide field capability and proposed first light schedule provides a scientific advantage for our user community given competing activities within the system.

This matter is an important one for the forthcoming System Workshop. An area worth examining closely at the workshop is time domain astronomy from a system standpoint.

Update September 2004:

The report of the May 2004 System Workshop [pdf] is available.

Recommendation 5.2:

The Committee recommends that NOAO continue to assess its strategic plans with the goal of maintaining healthy oversubscription rates for facilities and instrumentation. As this metric current stands, NOAO is vibrant and the Committee applauds NOAO management and staff diligence and efforts.

The NSF Program Review Panel receives and reviews data on NOAO metrics annually, including telescope oversubscription.

NOAO Managed System Access and the TSIP Program

Recommendation 6.1:

NOAO is encouraged to make periodic assessment of the real burdens of administering the external telescope time, and evaluate this burden against the demands of maintaining NOAO facilities. Such an assessment is imperative before NOAO considers extending TSIP or TSIP-like activities.

Accepted. Receipt of feedback forms would be an important first step.

Recommendation 6.2:

The Committee urges NOAO to study and identify mechanisms that lead to effective advocacy and support for users on TSIP facilities.


Update September 2004:

6.1 & 6.2—We acknowledge the need to provide a more uniform coordinated interface to the “system”, as well as to give potential proposers more visibility into the performance and support offered by the various providers. We are therefore initiating a system website that will present this information in a standard way, allowing the community to have a better understanding of the capabilities available, their effectiveness, and how to get access.

Recommendation 6.3:

Unproductive or inefficient TSIP agreements should be abandoned. On the other hand, should further extensions be considered viable, the Committee recommends that such extensions be sought that have the potential to increase spectroscopic capabilities on large aperture telescopes. This area appears to be a continuing concern among the NOAO user community.

Ongoing TSIP investment is reviewed annually by the panel.

NOAO Support of Multi-wavelength, Multi-Mission Programs

Recommendation 7.1:

The Committee encourages NOAO to continue facilitation of multi-wavelength, multi-mission science programs. For supported programs, we recommend that NOAO establish guidelines and requirements that produce uniform data products. The Committee also recommends that users who are taking advantage of this process be required to take the data in the manner recommended by the Data Products Program for storage in a calibrated archive.

Of NSF and NASA centers, NOAO has been a pioneer in our commitment to multi-wavelength integrated astrophysics, and the Users’ encouragement is gratifying. We do now need to pursue this matter with the Spitzer Science Center, with which there is as yet no agreement. We also need to bring Gemini within the scientific scope of this initiative. We accept the recommendation that those who are awarded NOAO time through the Chandra and HST TACs should be required to conform to calibration protocols. The scientific benefits of this requirement to the community that deals with all measurements in physical units are clear.

Update September 2004:

The Cycle 2 Call for Proposals for the Spitzer telescope includes observing time at NOAO on the Chandra and HST model. The wording is as follows.

“By agreement with NOAO, proposers interested in making use of observing facilities available through NOAO (except Magellan, and Keck) as part of their Spitzer science may submit a single proposal in response to this CP. The award of NOAO time will be made to highly ranked Spitzer proposals and will be subject to approval by the NOAO Director. The primary criterion for the award of NOAO time is that both Spitzer and NOAO data are required to meet the scientific objectives of the proposal. The highest priority for the award of NOAO time will be given to programs that plan to publicly release the NOAO data in a timely manner (shorter than the usual 18-month NOAO proprietary period) and that create databases likely to have broad application. NOAO plans to make up to 5% of the time available for this opportunity. NOAO observing time will be divided roughly equally between the fall (2005B) and spring (2006A) semesters covered by the Spitzer cycle.”

Effectiveness of Current Telescope Time Assignment Procedures

Recommendation 8.1:

The Committee recommends that NOAO modifying current proposal call forms to include a short section and/or check box regarding grant support

Accepted. In an end-to-end approach to science, the TAC needs to be made aware of resources which proposers can deploy to expedite results. Reciprocally, we are interested in raising awareness in the agencies of the need to support those who are awarded survey time in order to make their results available through the NSA.

Update September 2004:

Apologies. The form was supposed to be modified for semester 2005A, but it didn’t happen. This will be implemented for 2005B.

Recommendation 8.2:

The Committee encourages NOAO to review metrics used to determine the potential allocation of telescope time and assess whether current strategies properly support the user community.

A TAC report will be prepared for the next meeting of the Committee.

Operational Modes for the 4-m Class Telescopes and Their Scientific Return

Recommendation 9.1:

The Committee strongly endorses continued operation of the 4-m class telescopes of Kitt Peak and Cerro Tololo in their current modes.


Recommendation 9.2:

The Committee supports the decision to suspend survey solicitation and recommends that NOAO assess why current teams are having trouble delivering science quality data products to the community in a timely fashion and seek remedies to expedite delivery.

This matter will be examined at the next Survey Teams meeting.

Update September 2004:

Survey programs will resume in 2005B, subject to a review to be carried out by the Observatories Council.

Recommendation 9.3:

The Committee does not support the CheapOps mode for the NOAO 4-m class telescopes. Unfortunately, given their age and complexity, the Committee believes that this model is not a feasible option for the 4-m telescopes.

Role and Priority of Nationally Support Telescopes with Apertures Less Than 3.5-m

Finally, we must echo the words of the 2001 Users Committee: "However difficult, the Committee wishes unequivocally to apprise the general user community that if NOAO resources are not incremented and/or augmented above the current FY2001 [now FY2003] levels, the only telescopes that NOAO will operate and support in the near future will be the 4-m to 8-m class facilities."

In fact, NOAO has acted to retain stable shares of smaller aperture facilities. The 4 meter telescopes are now the pressure point, although SOAR will be a welcome relief in the coming year. The problem remains, however, that the national observatory user community is really between a rock and a hard place, in as much as Gemini enjoys aperture priority for any increased AST instrumentation funds, and, given the choice between obsolete instruments on the 4 meters and sacrifice, sacrifice is actually the scientifically better choice.

Recommendation 10.1:

The Committee endorses establishment of creative NOAO-private partnerships for operation and maintenance of NOAO telescopes of aperture less than 3.5-m.

Recommendation 10.2:

The Committee recommends a goal of at least 25% community access (as planned for 2004 in the SMARTS program) to ensure that NOAO's efforts on behalf of the observer community are worthwhile.

The SMARTS first year review also recommended continuation.

Recommendation 10.3:

The Committee recommends renewal of the NOAO and the WIYN Consortium MOU for MOSAIC, assuming the partners are all interested and that the arrangement continues to provide quality science opportunities of the community. NOAO should also pursue ODI.

These recommendations are accepted.

Recommendation 10.4:

NOAO should consider providing a list of qualified observing assistants in the Tucson area who could be contacted and supported by a PI for their assistance at the 2.1-m. Alternatively, NOAO may wish to investigate the efficacy of providing limited telescope operator support upon a request basis for the 2.1-m and/or explore other creative remedies.

The 2.1-meter is actually a safer environment than the 0.9-m telescopes that users ran for themselves for years. Admittedly, efficiency is reduced when a visitor encounters a problem well known in corporate memory but not in their own experience. That situation does not translate directly to safety risk, however. Creating a list of expert local users who might be willing to be hired for improved efficiency will be explored by the KPNO Director, although “moonlighting” OA’s is not a good idea; they need their break time, and if we had that level of budget, we'd be providing this service directly.

Recommendation 10.5:

The Committee was interested in hearing further details regarding possible access to a near-infrared imager through partnership with the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI). We suggest that NOAO continue to explore this arrangement and report back to the Committee.


Data Products Program and the Changing Relationship to NOAO Facility Users

Recommendation 11.1:

The Committee requests that the Data Products Program develop a strategic plan for activities during the next 5-year period detailing NOAO commitments and deliverables to the community. The Committee desires to have a presentation of such material by its next meeting.


Recommendation 11.2:

The Committee strongly supports efforts of the Data Products Program and its IRAF group to deliver software packages to support Gemini instrumentation.

Recommendation 11.3:

The Committee recommends close interaction between the NEWFIRM initiative and the Data Products Program to ensure that proper software and archiving architectures are extant prior to instrument commissioning.

This interaction is in place and will be maintained. The Maryland partnership contributes very significantly to achieving this goal.

Recommendation 11.4:

The Committee encourages NOAO through the Data Products Program to assist current survey teams in efforts to provide community accessible data products on an expedited schedule.


Meeting Materials and Report Dissemination

Recommendation 12.1:

The Committee endorses the practice of placing meeting presentations and materials on the web for retrieval. We request that both the portable document format (*.pdf) and the original power point (*.ppt) presentations be provided for the Committee prior to meetings.

Recommendation 12.2:

The Committee requests that NOAO create a final meeting web archive containing all updates/modifications and new/additional presentations or documents discussed during Committee deliberations. The Committee requests that NOAO maintain this archive as a permanent record of committee activity.

Recommendation 12.3:

The Committee thanks the Director for the candid, written response to past recommendations and encourages generation of similar document for this and future meetings.

Recommendation 12.4

Appropriate contents of the 2003 NOAO Users Committee report should be posted and made accessible to the community on the NOAO website after review by NOAO management.

All these recommendations are accepted.


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