Future Role of the National Observatory


Since the last Decadal Survey, the idea that the ground-based optical and IR astronomical facilities can be viewed as a system has achieved wide acceptance. The 2000 AASC, faced with the difficulty of developing an effective strategic plan for the minority of facilities that are federally funded and operated, realized that the system perspective solved a number of problems. Most importantly, it provided a context for discussing the next generation of facilities. As conceived, these facilities will require the technical and financial resources of public-private partnerships for construction and operation.

This system concept has already enabled fruitful, cross-community initiatives and discussions. TSIP has provided funds to build new instruments for the large non-federal telescopes and, as a result, the community-at-large has gained some access to these telescopes.

Workshops with broad public-private participation have provided a forum for discussing how a national instrumentation development strategy should evolve. The ReSTAR committee has developed — with much community input — a list of desired capabilities on small and mid-sized telescopes. A similar activity, ALTAIR, aimed at telescopes in the 6 - 10-m range, is nearing completion. The US-led extremely large telescope projects, TMT and GMT, actively seek federal support and community participation.

Thus, it now seems possible to combine these pieces into a single, decentralize, agile system of facilities. Connections can be made among the scientific strengths of all the pieces of the system. Observations on facilities of all size scales will be needed to answer certain fundamental questions now facing our fields — the nature of dark energy, the demographics and nature of extrasolar planets and planetary systems.

Given the current status of the extremely large telescope projects, the discussion of how to build the system might well provide a principal focus for the decadal survey panel that addresses ground-based O/IR issues.

Preliminary Charge

What is the nature of the ground-based O/IR system that could best support the US astronomical community, and what decisions and investments could guide the development of that system through the upcoming decade? How could such a system be made most effective for the broad community, without losing the ability of the non-federal observatories to raise private funds, or the value of their inherent diversity?

As the ground-based O/IR system evolves, its linkages to external capabilities (e.g., space facilities, large scale surveys such as LSST) will become more sophisticated, and its scientific thrusts will change. How do we identify and take advantage of those opportunities so that the ground-based O/IR system tracks the community aspirations without a lag? How do we institute mechanisms that can provide leadership and proactive development to the system?

What is the role of NOAO in such a system? The last decadal survey said that NOAO should lead strategic planning and provide complementary capabilities — growing system complexity makes a more detailed recommendation necessary. Natural roles for NOAO include developing and operating general-purpose science facilities, leading technology development in key areas, enabling instrumentation and platforms for well-defined experiments, and providing national stewardship at the interface between federal funding agencies, private observatories, and the open-access scientific community.

Other major roles for the National Observatory have evolved significantly in the interface between NOAO and Gemini. How can the US community make most effective use of Gemini as a key element of the system, articulate a coherent set of national science priorities, and what role should NOAO play in achieving that end.

Finally, the NSF has stated that “NOAO will be the NSF/national presence in any eventual partnership that operates the GSMT”. What specific roles should NOAO play in optimizing community participation in a GSMT?


AURA intends to establish a community of national stakeholders to develop a vision for NOAO for the next decade. Its purpose will be to review the full scope of roles for the national observatory that includes the elements of system development recommended by the Senior Review, the interfaces with Gemini and LSST, and with future Extremely Large Telescopes. AURA will provide the results of ReSTAR, ALTAIR, the GSMT Design Reference Mission, and other relevant documents that address elements of the overall system. NOAO will also provide its own vision of a long range plan.

The Committee is expected to review and discuss these existing inputs, seek additional input and synthesize an overall description of the Future of NOAO and the roles it should play. AURA intends that this document be vetted with the community in some broader form and be provided to the Decadal Survey during the first quarter of 2009.