A Future Optical and Infrared System

Whatever new telescopes NSF decides to support in the decade to come, a guiding principle in planning a future optical and infrared (OIR) system of telescopes is maintaining an appropriate balance between major national facilities and a vibrant university-based program, as well as ample provision for the longer-term future. This future is certain to include larger and ever-more capable telescopes.

AANM developed the concept of treating the federally supported and independent OIR observatories in the United States as an integrated system, and advocated this concept as a means to increase community access to large-aperture telescopes through the TSIP. During the past decade there have been several reviews of the OIR system, including the 2006 NSF-AST senior review and the subsequent NOAO-led ALTAIR and ReSTAR committee reports9 that addressed community needs for large and small telescopes, respectively. Together these studies identify a series of critical needs that must be balanced to optimize the overall OIR system. The most important of these include:

  1. Development of future large telescope facilities, specifically LSST and GSMT, including a federal leveraging of private funding so as to ensure open access to a share of time on these facilities and to their data archives. Currently, around 5 percent of the NSF-AST OIR facilities, instrumentation, and development budget is allocated to future activities.

  2. Support of the NOAO and Gemini public observatories, providing open community access to telescopes with aperture up to 8 meters, and coordination of current and future OIR facilities and instrumentation initiatives. Currently, this accounts for around 80 percent of NSF-AST OIR funding.

  3. Investment in new and upgraded instrumentation for privately operated telescopes, to enhance the scientific potential of these facilities and to provide public access to a share of the observing time—via TSIP, ReSTAR, MRI and ATI, and a mid-scale instrumentation program—currently around 15 percent of funds.

These reports also concluded, and this committee concurs, that following the current unbalanced funding path and investing relatively little in future large projects will further diminish the U.S. presence in international OIR astronomy. The challenge is to achieve a better balance that will enable significant federal participation in LSST and GSMT, while retaining sufficient access to smaller telescopes in private or public hands, to carry out a balanced science program with benefit for both the public and private sectors. After considering various options,


ReSTAR report, available at http://www.noao.edu/system/restar/files/ReSTAR_final_14jan08.pdf. Accessed May 2010. ALTAIR report, available at http://www.noao.edu/system/altair/. Accessed August 2010.

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