The Astronomy OIR Study recommendations for the LSST era

Maria Womack (@StarzanPlanets) is a physics professor at the University of South Florida. From 2011-2015 she worked as a ‘rotating’ astronomy program director to the National Science Foundation and her research includes multi-wavelength spectroscopy of comets and exoplanets.


This is the second in a series of three guest posts on the recently released National Research Council (NRC) report often referred to as the “Optical and infrared (OIR) Optimization Study in the LSST era.” The first post introduces two NRC decadal reports referenced by the OIR Study; the second summarizes the committee’s motivation and top-level recommendations; the third addresses the estimated yearly cost for the recommended actions and how NSF might pay for them.

You may have heard about the recently released NRC report often called the “Optical and infrared optimization study,” and wondered what it was about, and even whether it is relevant to your career.  This post summarizes the top-level recommendations and what the committee hopes they will bring to the US astronomy community.

The report’s full name is “A Strategy to Optimize the U.S. Optical and Infrared System in the Era of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST)” and it is available from the link provided above. The OIR Optimization Study makes several recommendations to NSF for changes in ground-based observing capabilities, instrumentation, data management, and human resources – many of which could have far-reaching consequences for both public and private observatories. Because the report is part of a larger, ongoing effort to maximize future science output of the U.S. ground-based (rather than space-based) observational community, NASA is not included.

The bulk of the work for this study was carried out by a special NRC committee of twelve astronomers chaired by Debra Elmegreen, under the auspices of the National Academies’ Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics (CAA).  The NRC convened this committee to write a report to “recommend and prioritize adjustments to the U.S. OIR ground-based system” for the next 10-15 years, with particular focus on instrumentation capabilities and data management issues related to the LSST.  The LSST will bring a deluge of time-domain data, leading to a major change in the way optical astronomy is performed when it comes online in the 2020s. See the 2013 annual report from the Congressionally chartered Astronomy & Astrophysics Advisory Committee (AAAC) for more information about the motivation for the report.

The OIR committee also reviewed and discussed community input from many white papers, observatory directors and other experts. An overview of tasks, record of meetings, white papers and presentations can be found here.

The OIR Optimization Study report also makes seven “top-level” recommendations to the NSF, numbered in prioritized order below:

  1.              Telescope and data access exchange program
  2.              Ongoing community planning process
  3.              Near-term critical instrument needs
  4.              Coordination for best return on LSST data
  5.              Investment in GSMTs (Giant Segmented Mirror Telescopes)
  6.              Critical instrument technologies
  7.              Training networks

Three of the recommendations (#1, 2, 4) deal with new ways to handle data acquisition, and planning and coordination of observations to maximize resources.  The highest priority recommendation (#1) is that the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) play a strong community role to coordinate and administer a telescope-time exchange system and lead a community-wide planning process.  Recommendation #2 is that NOAO should administer an ongoing community wide planning process to continue the OIR optimization dialogue, and #4 suggests that NSF support development “event brokers” for transient events, which NSF already does to some extent, and makes other recommendations to ensure southern hemisphere follow-up observation capabilities for the LSST are in place.

The telescope-time exchange system (#1) would change how most optical and infrared observing time is proposed and awarded on 2m+ size telescopes in the U.S. by creating a mechanism for participating observatories to barter facilities and instruments and possibly engage in limited term partnerships for telescope or data access.  Such a system already exists for a few other observatories, such as between Keck and Subaru, and NOAO already manages telescope allocation committees (TACs) across multiple telescopes. Some motivation for this recommendation comes from Figure 2 from the NOAO ground-based OIR roadmap committee report, which shows many observers using two or more facilities for their research program.


The goal for a telescope-time exchange is to enhance capabilities, especially for astronomers whose research programs involve multiple telescopes. The report states that there is hope that the exchange would help restore public access lost due to divestment.  It is worth discussing whether this represents a sort of ‘end run’ around the Portfolio Review Committee (PRC) divestment recommendations, especially since this will not be free and the cost has to be paid somehow. NOAO is proposed as the body to negotiate this on behalf of NSF, and the committee estimates that this would require $1-2 million/year from NSF to run the telescope allocation committee(s) and manage the awarded time requests. See the third post for discussion about how NSF might pay for the recommendations.

Several recommendations (#3, 4 and 6) deal with hardware, including development of near-term critical technologies, such as a wide-field, highly multiplexed spectroscopic capability on a medium or large aperture southern hemisphere telescope, improved adaptive optics (AO) techniques, and higher precision “radial velocity” (RV) spectrographs.  These are considered necessary for LSST and exoplanet-related follow-up observations.

The 5th recommendation calls for NSF to plan for investment in one or both GSMT’s in order for “a broad U.S. community to have direct access” to the future largest telescopes in the U.S., presumably through the NSF providing access time to one or both of these scopes. Two GSMTs are being developed privately  – the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) at Maunakea and the 24.5-m Giant Segmented Telescope (GMT) in Chile. These telescopes, along with the European Southern Observatory’s 39-m European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), are expected to revolutionize OIR astronomy with their dramatically increased light gathering and angular resolution capabilities. These telescopes are currently in the planning stages for construction by private and international organizations and at the moment do not have NSF involvement, other than a 5 year planning study cooperative agreement to the Thirty Meter Telescope Observatory Corporation (TMT) in 2013.

Finally, the seventh recommendation is for NSF to support a coordinated suite of schools, workshops and training networks for what the committee saw as unmet needs for instrumentation, software and data analysis training in the future.

What do you think about the telescope and data exchange program?  How would it affect you if this went through?


3 comments… add one
  • John Gizis Sep 16, 2015 @ 20:40

    It’s a very impressive report. I think the Event Broker system is especially important, and I like the idea of swapping DESI and DECam, hoping, of course, that the KPNO 4-meter stays open.

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