As we cross the threshold of the new millennium, astronomy with ground-based optical and infrared (O/IR) telescopes will continue to play its fundamental role in shaping our understanding of the workings of the universe, enriching the golden era of discovery that astronomy has enjoyed in the last decades. As a result of past investments in astronomical facilities, the United States led the world in observational research throughout the 20th century. Our nation has the talent, the knowledge, and the resources to carry this great tradition of leadership into the 21st century, building on a generation of powerful 8-m-class telescopes and anticipating future telescope facilities of unprecedented power and resolution.
However, state-of-the-art, ground-based O/IR facilities have grown in scale and complexity so that a new paradigm is needed that balances diversity and coordination. This paradigm focuses effort on unique and complementary capabilities and will enable the efficient development and operation of the next generation of facilities together with the effective use of existing ones. Establishing a common vision within the astronomy community of how these facilities should evolve is the foundation of the recommendations of the Panel on Optical and Infrared Astronomy from the Ground for the coming decade. In this context, the panel proposes three initiatives to encourage the evolution of U.S. O/IR ground-based facilities as a system, by combining and coordinating the assets and efforts of federally funded and independent observatories:
A next-generation, giant-aperture, adaptive-optics-equipped telescope whose spatial and spectral resolution will enable the unraveling of complex physical processes in the first galaxies, in nearby planetary systems, and in newborn stars. A unique opportunity exists to bring together federal and independent observatories to build and operate this facility.
A large-aperture, very-wide-field synoptic survey telescope that will search the solar system for its ancient materials and open a new time window on astronomical phenomena. This facility has particular resonance with the new role envisioned for the National Optical Astronomy Observatories (NOAO).
An enhanced instrumentation program for independent observatories that capitalizes on and encourages the significant investment of