The National Science Foundation’s Astronomy Senior Review report, released today, contains a variety of recommendations related to the National Optical Astronomy Observatory.
“NOAO welcomes the recommendations to maintain Kitt Peak National Observatory and Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory as world-class observatories. We are committed to developing new instruments, and welcome instruments built in the university community,” said NOAO Director Jeremy R. Mould. “The Senior Review also explicitly recognizes and praises the programs that NOAO manages for delivering observing time to the community over the complete ‘system’ of U.S. telescopes, including the Gemini Observatory.”
NOAO’s achievements are recognized in the report in research, education and public outreach, and hosting university telescopes. Well-instrumented telescopes are clearly long term investments: dark matter in galaxies was traced with NOAO’s 4-meter telescopes in their first decade; dark energy was detected through work originating at the same telescopes 25 years later. “The publication record, our presence in the media, the very high observing proposal pressure, and the large fraction of U.S. graduate students who make their thesis observations with our telescopes show the strength of the program today and tomorrow,” Mould said.
The Senior Review committee was charged by NSF to identify, if possible, items in NSF’s portfolio of facilities that could be closed or reduced, in order to free funds for new expenditures. No closures are recommended at NOAO, but further management review is recommended, covering infrastructure and most headquarters functions. Management reviews are also recommended for the other national centers, such as NRAO. For NOAO, the Report also notes four areas for further attention. They are Administration, Data Products, Instrumentation, and Scientific staff. “We believe we are efficient in all four areas, based on the record,” Mould said, “and our excellent scientific staff is thinly distributed across the full range of our programs. They guide the observatory, they mentor young scientists, and their limited research time is necessary to keep them at the cutting edge.”
The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) is the survey telescope of the next generation, an unprecedented community data resource, targeted particularly at dark energy and the domain of time-varying astronomical sources. “NOAO is pleased to be playing one of the key roles in the telescope engineering and the facility site on Cerro Pachon in Chile,” Mould said.
A large aperture telescope with adaptive optics is the vision for the Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope (GSMT). The combination of resolution and collecting area in a 30-meter class telescope could reach the first-light sources in the Universe and probe planetary systems forming in our neighborhood. “NOAO’s vital and unique role in GSMT is to represent the broader community’s observing needs,” Mould said.
The Senior Review Report speaks of a commission to find a new organizational structure for U.S. optical/infrared astronomy. “However, if we look around at the independent observatories, Gemini, and NOAO, we find that building this structure is already under way and working well. We develop the System now via the Telescope System Instrumentation Program or TSIP, a program recommended by the last decadal survey and administered by NOAO,” Mould said. “Community workshops like one we are hosting in Phoenix in two weeks provide coherence to the program. Cooperatively, we need to make the System work better, maximize the science, and facilitate its evolution to provide access to telescopes of all apertures.
“We will work closely with the NSF as the recommended reviews are conducted, and as the NSF prepares an implementation plan,” Mould said.