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NOAO Unites with Gemini and LSST, Creating New National Laboratory for Optical-Infrared Astronomy

As of 1 October 2019, NOAO has joined with Gemini Observatory and LSST operations, both of which were incubated in partnerships with NOAO, to create the next incarnation of the US national observatory. All of the nighttime optical-infrared astronomy facilities supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) have transitioned to operate as one organization.

New Organization and New Director

The new organization, NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory (for now nicknamed NSF’s OIR Lab), now operates five facilities—Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO), the Community Science and Data Center (CSDC), Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO), Gemini Observatory, and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), the first three of which were formerly under NOAO. As the preeminent US center for ground-based optical-infrared astronomy, the new organization will serve as a focal point for community development of innovative scientific programs, the exchange of ideas, and domestic and international collaborations.

The new organization will be led by its recently appointed Director, Patrick McCarthy, who previously held the position of Vice President of the Giant Magellan Telescope project and Astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science. Speaking of the new organization, McCarthy said, “Integrating these facilities into one multi-mission center brings together diverse pathways for astronomical exploration, facilitates community coordination and collaboration, and enables the discoveries of the future.”

Although the organizational name NOAO will be retired as part of the transition, NOAO’s mission and activities continue uninterrupted through two Programs within the new organization: Mid-Scale Observatories (MSO, which includes KPNO and CTIO), and CSDC (which includes all of NOAO’s data, community coordination, community planning, and time allocation activities). The US community can also look forward to expanded opportunities for discovery as a result of the greater coordination between the five facilities and future development efforts.

A History of Evolution and New Opportunities

The integration of NOAO, Gemini, and LSST operations into a single organization is part of a long-term evolutionary trend and is reminiscent of the origin of NOAO itself. The creation of NOAO in 1984 consolidated under a single Director all of NSF’s ground-based observatories then managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), including KPNO, whose lease with the Tohono O’odham nation was signed in 1958, and CTIO, whose site was selected 1962.

Image of the gravitational lensed arc in Abell 370, obtained in 1976 by R. Lynds, V. Petrosian, and A. Sandage using the KPNO video camera.

Over its 35-year history as the US national research and development center for ground-based optical and infrared astronomy, NOAO’s mission has been to develop world-class research capabilities for use by the professional astronomy community to conduct frontier science investigations. Research carried out with NOAO’s facilities has led to major scientific discoveries and explorations including:

  • Flat rotation curves of galaxies and the existence of dark matter (1970s);
  • First gravitational lens (1979);
  • Accelerating expansion of the Universe and the existence of dark energy (1998);
  • Dwarf galaxy companions and merger history of the Milky Way (ongoing);
  • Dwarf planets in the Outer Solar System (ongoing);
  • Census and exploration of the Sun’s nearest neighbors (ongoing).

To enable these and future discoveries, NOAO has continuously created new opportunities to explore the Universe, advancing the way astronomers collect and interact with data. Since 1984,

  • New telescopes have been created for community use, including the WIYN telescope at KPNO (first light in 1994) and the SOAR telescope at CTIO (first observations in 2005), both developed in partnership with university consortia; the two Gemini telescopes (first community observations in 2001), developed through an international partnership; and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST; first observations anticipated 2022), a public-private partnership involving an institutional consortium and an inter-agency collaboration between NSF and the Department of Energy.
  • NOAO led the creation of software to process and analyze electronic data (e.g., the Image Reduction and Analysis Facility; IRAF—first public release in 1986). Just as CCDs changed the way astronomers collected their data, IRAF changed the way astronomers reduced and analyzed their data.
  • The development of infrared array detectors at NOAO opened up the field of infrared imaging and spectroscopy to the entire astronomical community.
  • The early recognition of the science potential of large surveys led NOAO to demonstrate their feasibility (with the NOAO Deep Wide-field Survey—begun in 1995) and deploy increasingly powerful imagers (e.g., the Dark Energy Camera—commissioned in 2012 and supported by both NSF and DOE), data reduction pipelines that produce science-ready data sets, and opportunities for community-led surveys.
  • NOAO’s long-term advocacy for massively multiplexed spectroscopy, another discovery frontier, has led to the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI) experiment, now being installed and commissioned on the Kitt Peak Mayall telescope by an international collaboration led by Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.
  • To meet the challenge of massive surveys such as LSST, NOAO has developed software to analyze large data sets (e.g., NOAO’s Data Lab) and sift through the changing sky to find the most unusual time-varying objects (e.g., NOAO’s ANTARES), as well as systems to enable efficient follow-up studies of time-varying objects (e.g., AEON at SOAR).
  • In collaboration with the NASA-NSF partnership on exoplanet research NN-EXPLORE, NOAO is about to install on the Kitt Peak WIYN telescope a state-of-the art extreme precision radial velocity spectrometer that will detect and characterize other worlds.

A New Organization for a Diverse Enterprise

In part as a result of these developments, astronomy is today a more diverse enterprise than ever before, its pathways to discovery threading through projects, facilities, and teams both large and small. Future discoveries will be driven by large survey facilities such as LSST, which will deliver massive data sets ready for exploration, as well as traditional investigations by curiosity-driven individuals and teams carrying out observational programs of their own design.

To meet the diverse needs of its community, NOAO has now united with Gemini Observatory and LSST operations, both of which were incubated in partnerships with NOAO, to form a new organization that is well positioned to support the multi-faceted enterprise that will be ground-based OIR astronomy in the coming decade.

MSO Director Lori Allen remarked, “With the transition to our new organization, we will be able to support the diverse discovery modes of the future. We can also coordinate strategic planning across the broad array of laboratory facilities and services to better enable the US community’s continued leadership in astronomy.”

For CSDC Director Adam Bolton, “The new NSF OIR Lab also creates an exciting opportunity for us to coordinate the data archives and data analysis systems that are essential for realizing the full scientific potential of our many observatories.”

Further details are available in the NSF OIR Lab press release.