In May 2000 the Astronomy and Astrophysics Survey Committee (AASC) recommended, as its highest priority large ground-based initiative for this decade, the construction of a 30-meter aperture Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope (GSMT). The AURA New Initiatives Office was formally established in January 2001 to work towards the goal of being able to start construction of GSMT by the end of this decade in order to complement NGST and ALMA. A decade from now, astronomers will have access to major new tools on the ground (ALMA) and in space (JWST). To exploit these tools fully will require a new generation optical/infrared telescope with:
On June 11, 2003 AURA and the CELT Development Corporation completed negotiations and signed a Letter of Intent to work together in carrying out a design and development effort that would achieve the vision of the Decadal Survey for a Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope. At the same time, AURA perceived that, although its primary obligation was to further the specific goals of the Decadal Survey for the building of a thirty-meter-class telescope through a public/private partnership, an additional responsibility existed to maintain a linkage and engagement with other telescope groups including the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) group and ESO.
Resources for these efforts came from AURA (NOAO and Gemini) staff, and from funding through a proposal submitted to the NSF on 30 June, 2004, “Enabling a Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope (GSMT) for the U.S. Astronomical Community”.
This proposal requested $39.4M to provide funding for Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope development and was to provide support for the TMT design and development phase, for a second extremely large telescope (ELT) concept, and for related technology and instrument development efforts, public outreach, and a theory challenge program. GMT was subsequently chosen as the second ELT concept by a competitive review. Some funding, totaling approximately $3M, has been provided under this proposal in fiscal years 2005 and 2006, with additional funds anticipated in fiscal years 2007 and 2008, possibly totaling $10M.
In 2006, the National Science Foundation (NSF) conducted a Senior Review of all its astronomical facilities. This was primarily driven by the realization that the expectations implied by the decadal survey could not be met within the decade with plausibly available funds. The goal of the review process was to identify cuts and consequent savings within existing programs in order to support new initiatives. However, in the case of NOAO no programmatic cuts were recommended in current operations. Instead, the Senior Review indicated that the scope and pace of new initiatives, specifically including GSMT, should be matched to the probable availability of federal funds. Accordingly, it was recommended that NIO efforts be redirected to focus on leadership and planning, rather than engaging in direct participation in one project at this early stage. This role is being carried out under the renewed cooperative agreement by the GSMT Program Office as an entity integrated into the NOAO System Development division.