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,
- 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.
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.