National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory Launched

On 1 October 2019, the nighttime astronomy facilities supported by the National Science Foundation transitioned to operating as one organization, NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory. (Source: AURA)

The National Science Foundation and the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy have launched the integrated operations of all of their nighttime astronomical facilities under NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory. This new organization is the pre-eminent US center for ground-based optical-infrared astronomy, enabling breakthrough discoveries in astrophysics by developing and operating state-of-the-art ground-based observatories and providing data products and services for a diverse and inclusive community.

NSF and AURA also announced the appointment of Patrick McCarthy as director of the Lab. He was most recently vice president of the Giant Magellan Telescope project and astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science. McCarthy said of the new organization: “Integrating these facilities into one multi-mission center brings together diverse pathways for astronomical exploration, facilitates community coordination, and enables the discoveries of the future. The integrated center will also stimulate new domestic and international collaborations and provide additional opportunities for staff while expanding scientific capabilities and improving the experience for users.”

Since 1958, NSF has sponsored ground-based optical-infrared astronomical research facilities in the US and Chile managed by AURA. The first site developed was Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) in Arizona, followed soon after by Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile. In 2000 the Gemini Observatory in Hawai’i and Chile began operations, funded by NSF and an international consortium. The most recent addition, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), currently under construction in Chile, is a cutting-edge observatory sponsored by NSF and the US Department of Energy.

Patrick McCarthy (Source: AURA)

All of these NSF facilities are managed by AURA but were previously structured as separate organizations. The National Optical Astronomy Observatory operated the telescopes on Kitt Peak and Cerro Tololo and the Community Science and Data Center, CSDC. Separately, AURA first managed Gemini Observatory as well as the LSST construction project. On 1 October, NOAO, Gemini Observatory, and LSST’s operations component transitioned to a single management structure, and the NOAO name was retired. As LSST finishes construction, the ramped-up operations will become an integral component within NSF’s OIR Lab with full operations beginning in 2022.

Through its five programs – Cerro Tololo, CSDC, Gemini, Kitt Peak, and LSST –, the OIR Lab serves as a focal point for community development of innovative scientific programs, exchange of ideas, and creative development. The lab’s infrastructure enables the astronomy community to advance humanity’s understanding of the Universe by exploring significant areas of astrophysics, including dark energy and dark matter, galaxies and quasars, the Milky Way, exoplanets, and small bodies in our own Solar System.

“We are excited to see the OIR Lab become a reality,” said Anne Kinney, NSF’s assistant director for mathematical and physical sciences. “This new national lab will strengthen NSF-sponsored capabilities, which are at the forefront of international astronomical research. The lab combines a wide array of existing and new facilities into one multifaceted center for ground-based optical-infrared astronomy research and technology development.”

Over 60 Years of Optical-Infrared Astronomy

One of the five programs, LSST, which will begin its survey in 2022, will revolutionize time-domain astronomy by detecting and reporting ten million astronomical events per night. CSDC staff and collaborators are creating software systems capable of filtering and prioritizing the LSST alert stream in real time, and the telescopes of the OIR Lab are developing powerful and dynamic new capabilities for rapid-response follow-up observing and data analysis.

The OIR Lab also creates new opportunities in astronomical research with its extensive data archives by connecting the unprecedented imaging survey data set from LSST with datasets from, for instance, the Dark Energy Camera (DECam) on Cerro Tololo’s Blanco Telescope at CTIO in Chile and the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI) on the Mayall 4-Meter Telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona. By coordinating the services of the LSST Science Platform and the CSDC Data Lab, NSF’s new national lab will become a world-leading data-science facility supporting access, queries and analysis of these and other petascale datasets.

The new organization operates five scientific programs: Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, the Community Science and Data Center, Kitt Peak National Observatory – all formerly known as the NOAO –, Gemini Observatory, and the upcoming Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. (Source: AURA)

The Gemini Observatory’s unique 8.1-meter telescope capabilities in both hemispheres allow rapid follow-up on 8-meter-class telescopes of targets identified by LSST and other time-domain experiments. Gemini is enhancing its existing ability to quickly respond to time-domain and multi-messenger astronomy targets as part of an NSF-funded project called GEMMA which is developing powerful new adaptive optics instrumentation and infrastructure to accommodate the flood of data expected from LSST and other facilities such as LIGO.

In addition to its role as a community gateway to facilities and datasets throughout the optical-infrared system, this national lab serves as the focal point for coordinating complementary observations using other experimental techniques. These capabilities will be fundamental to the NSF multi-messenger astronomy mission, particularly in coordination with gravitational wave and particle astrophysics facilities.

AURA President Matt Mountain commented on NSF’s OIR Lab: “These are exciting times for astrophysics. For example, both the discoveries of exoplanets and the rise of multi-messenger astronomy are driving the creation across the globe of ever-more audacious observational facilities. By bringing together the talent and creativity of our three existing centers – NOAO, Gemini and LSST – we have created a new NSF lab to respond to these observational opportunities. This new organization is focused on scientific, technical, and managerial excellence in the service of our community to enable new science and future breakthroughs in astrophysics.” (Source: AURA)

Link: NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory, Tucson, Arizona, USA

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