Optimizing the U.S. Ground-Based Optical and Infrared Astronomy System

by S. Prasad Ganti

Recently, the committee on a Strategy to Optimize the U.S. Optical and Infrared System (OIR) in the Era of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) came up with set of recommendations. This is a summary of the draft version of the report. I organized the summary in form of notes and conclusions and recommendations. Each paragraph is marked accordingly.

NOTES:  The committee’s highest priority is a U.S. OIR System that is well coordinated and facilitates broad access to do the best science. An integrated OIR System can do the best science when it engages a broad population of astronomers to pursue a diversity of science and scientific approaches.

NOTES:  But why OIR region? Setting aside the cosmic microwave background radiation, most of the radiation in the universe is starlight, and the infrared background is largely radiation from dust heated by stars. X-ray astronomers and radio astronomers need to know what kind of optical and infrared light is associated with their sources to understand their nature. A growing trend in astronomical research is the synergy between observations with different telescopes and instruments in the study of astrophysical phenomena. This includes coordinated use of multiple ground-based OIR facilities with complementary capabilities, use of OIR facilities in combination with ground based observations at other wavelengths, and use of OIR facilities in combination with space based facilities.

RECOMMENDATION:  The National Science Foundation should support the development of a wide-field, highly multiplexed spectroscopic capability on a medium or large aperture telescope in the Southern Hemisphere to enable a variety of science, including follow-up spectroscopy of LSST targets.

RECOMMENDATION:  The National Science Foundation (NSF) should continue to invest in the development of critical instrument technologies, including detectors, adaptive/active optics and precision radial velocity measurements. NSF should also use existing instrument and research programs to support small-scale exploratory programs that have the potential to develop transformative technologies.

NOTES:  Powerful science comes from combining space-based observations with data from the OIR system. In the 1990s, HST (Hubble Space Telescope) along with Keck, HET (Hobby-Eberly Telescope), Gemini, Magellan, and other large ground-based telescopes worked effectively to exploit these opportunities. In the 2020s, JWST (James Webb Space Telescope) along with LSST and other large telescopes and the GSMTs (Giant Segmented Mirror Telescopes-Giant Magellan Telescope in Hawaii and Thirty Meter Telescope in Chile) will combine to solve a new set of cosmic mysteries. Along with ESO’s (European Southern Observatory) 39-meter European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) in Chile, will revolutionize OIR astronomy by achieving angular resolution and depth far beyond current telescopes.

RECOMMENDATION:  The National Science Foundation should plan for an investment in one or both Giant Segmented Mirror Telescopes to capitalize on these observatories’ exceptional scientific capabilities for the broader astronomical community in the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope era, such as through shared operations costs, instrument development, or limited partnerships in telescope or data access or science projects.

NOTES:  While the field of astronomy is driven by the existence of state-of-the-art facilities for collecting photons from astronomical sources, the pursuance of research in astronomy, and in particular the physical understanding of astronomical phenomena, requires software, analysis techniques, scientific interpretation, theoretical work, and numerical simulations.

CONCLUSION:  Making effective use of petabyte-scale databases (“big data”) requires new skills, and the astronomical community working in this area needs to continue to develop algorithms and procedures for data processing and analysis to take advantage of the next generation of data sets.

RECOMMENDATION:  The National Science Foundation should help to support the development of event brokers, which should use standard formats and protocols, to maximize LSST transient survey follow-up work.

RECOMMENDATION:  The National Science Foundation (NSF) should support a coordinated suite of schools, workshops, and training networks run by experts to train the future generation of astronomers and maintain instrumentation, software, and data analysis expertise.

RECOMMENDATION:  A data archive that is publicly accessible and well curated is a commendable central goal for every major survey from a public or private facility.

RECOMMENDATION:  The National Science Foundation should ensure via a robustly organized U.S. OIR System that a fraction of the its observing time be allocated for rapid, faint transient observations prioritized by an Large Synoptic Survey Telescope event broker system so that high-priority events can be efficiently and rapidly targeted.

My two cents is that with the coming of an era of more powerful telescopes, both on ground and in space, strategizing to make the best use of the telescopes and giving a boost to the accompanying technologies augurs well for astronomy in US.

This entry was posted in June 2015, Sidereal Times and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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