Chapter 1

Chapter 1, Enabling the GSMT

NOAO Logo    Gemini Logo


The enormous potential of a next generation optical/infrared (O/IR) telescope was recognized by the National Research Council's (NRC) Astronomy and Astrophysics Survey Committee (AASC), which recommended the construction of a 30-m, filled-aperture, segmented mirror O/IR telescope - the Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope (GSMT) - as its highest priority large project among recommended ground-based initiatives. In its decadal report Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium (National Academy Press, 2001), the AASC urges rapid development of GSMT in order that this facility be in place early in the next decade. This would enable full exploitation of both the decadal survey's highest priority initiative, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), and the powerful Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA).

The decadal survey further recommends an optimum path toward a GSMT for the US community through a partnership between the US national observatory and one or more independent observatories. Such a partnership has the advantage of providing full community representation during the design and construction phase of GSMT, ensuring that the design is optimized to meet the scientific aspirations of the entire astronomy community. Additionally, this partnership would provide broad, merit-based access to this frontier facility during its operation phase.


In response to the decadal survey, AURA formally established a New Initiatives Office (NIO) in January 2001 as a joint venture drawing from the strengths inherent in the two ground-based institutions managed by AURA: the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) and the Gemini Observatory.

The principal mission of the NIO is to enable the successful creation of a GSMT to which there is broad astronomy community access, in a time frame contemporary with ALMA and JWST.

NIO's activities are guided by a broadly representative advisory committee comprising both national and international scientific leaders and key "stakeholders" who have a strong incentive to ensure that investments in NIO are well-aligned with long-term community interests.

John CasaniJet Propulsion Laboratory
Alan DresslerCarnegie Observatory
Richard EllisCaltech
Robert FugateStarfire Optical Range
Jay GallagherUniversity of Wisconsin
Bob GehrzUniversity of Minnesota
Roberto GilmozziEuropean Southern Observatory
Riccardo GiovanelliCornell University
Bob KirshnerHarvard-Smithsonian, CfA
Rolf KudritzkiUniversity of Hawaii
TBDHerzberg Institute of Astrophysics
Joe MillerUniversity of California
Jerry NelsonUniversity of California
Larry RamseyPennsylvania State University
Chuck Steidel Caltech
Alfonso SerranoCONACyT Mexico

In structuring its initial activities, NIO has embarked on three parallel efforts:

The point design is described in detail in Chapter 4.


Both JWST and ALMA will be operational early in the next decade. Our estimates indicate that creation of GSMT, including initial development studies, design, construction, and commissioning, will take at least 10 years, assuming funding at an optimal rate. If GSMT is to be contemporary with JWST and ALMA, work needs to start immediately. Toward that end, AURA has developed a strategic plan that takes into account funding realities and assumes that the most expeditious path toward a GSMT involves partnerships (1) to initiate the design for GSMT and its major instruments, (2) to build the telescope and instruments, and (3) to operate the telescope. The plan's key elements are:

This strategy recognizes explicitly that the NSF is presently committed to initiating other major projects, including ALMA and ATST (Advanced Technology Solar Telescope), and calls for a significant investment from the NOAO base budget in order to initiate broad community participation in GSMT design efforts. Furthermore, AURA assumes that NSF participation in GSMT will be through a partnership involving NOAO and other national or international collaborators. It also recognizes the essential importance of proactively involving the community at all stages of the GSMT program, from setting the science goals to operating GSMT.


AURA is committed to ensuring that the US astronomy community is fully engaged in planning, building, and operating a next generation ground-based O/IR telescope, in service of fulfilling the recommendation of the AASC decadal survey that the community be represented at all phases in the evolution of a GSMT project, and able to gain access to GSMT through an "effective national observatory." Indeed, these goals were paramount in establishing the NIO.

In the immediate future, AURA will continue to ensure that the efforts of the NIO are directed toward: (1) involving the community deeply in developing a science-based set of performance goals for GSMT; (2) supporting technology development studies with general applicability to multiple ELT design efforts; (3) investing in technical and analytical "tools" necessary for the successful design of GSMT; and (4) exploring public/private and US/international partnerships aimed at achieving full GSMT operations during the prime mission phase of JWST. In doing so, it will seek advice from the NIO Advisory Committee and work in close collaboration iwth the NSF GSMT SWG.

AURA will work to: (1) proactively serve as a "fair broker" in bringing elements of the community together to explore and define the partnerships needed to realize a GSMT; (2) develop community consensus regarding plausible funding paths to enable public participation in a GSMT project; and (3) articulate that consensus vigorously at appropriate levels in the federal government in a continuing effort to ensure timely funding of the design, construction, and operation of GSMT.

November 2002