AST Senior Review

In 2005-2006 the Division of Astronomical Sciences undertook a “Senior Review” of its portfolio of facilities. This review, a recommendation of the most recent Decade Survey, was motivated by a combination of the current Federal budget outlook, the ambitions of the astronomical community as evidenced in the Decade Survey and other reports such as “Connecting Quarks with the Cosmos,” and by the growth in the AST budget over the previous five years.

This review examined the balance of our investments in the various facilities that we support. The primary goal of the review and the adjustment of balance that will result is to enable progress on the recommendations of the Decade Survey and other priorities. At the same time we must preserve, indeed grow, a healthy core program of astronomical research. We regard this as essential to support the scientific programs that will be undertaken with the new facilities, to seed the next generation of capability, and to attract, train, and retain the next generation of astronomical researchers.



A committee of representatives from the community was constituted as a subcommittee of the NSF Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) Advisory Committee to carry out the review. The committee presented their report to the November 1-3 2006 meeting of the MPS Advisory Committee. The report “From the Ground Up: Balancing the NSF Astronomy Program” can be found here.

We have compiled a set of frequently asked questions on the review process and outcome here.

We are now working closely with the facility managers to understand implications of the committee's recommendations as we consider possible implementation. We are undertaking the necessary studies to understand the costs associated with facility closure or divestiture, and the cost reviews recommended in the report. These reviews and studies will be carried out through 2007. In coordination with facility managers we are also encouraging and engaging in discussion with other possible partners in facility operations. And as we better understand the costs and benefits of making these changes, we are beginning to build models for future investment that will form the basis for budget planning.

Steps Towards a National GSMT Program

A key result of the Senior Review is the observation that coordinating the design and technology development for major projects like the GSMT, expediting passage through the various phases of the NSF MREFC process and ultimately preparing for the operations and science phases requires leadership and planning at a level unprecedented in NSF. In view of this, in October 2006 NSF's Division of Astronomical Sciences (AST) approached AURA/NOAO, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), and Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) to begin discussing the most productive approach to developing a GSMT program in a manner that best serves U.S. astronomy, capitalizes on the basic purpose of the national observatory, preserves the strength of the non-federal investment in the development of the next generation of optical/infrared telescopes in the U.S, and assures a fair and balanced approach to both projects

As a result of those discussions, and with the full agreement of all of the parties, NSF has asked that AURA/NOAO act as NSF's "Program Manager" for the GSMT Technology development effort at a national level in a manner similar to the role played by NASA's major Centers for the development and operations of various space missions. In this role NSF expects that AURA/NOAO will, inter alia:

  • As recommended by the Senior Review, promote the development of both TMT and GMT at a pace that recognizes the timescales of the MREFC and federal budget processes.

  • Understand and champion the national needs for a GSMT in any public/private partnership. This implies:

    • Establishing and running a national community Science Working Group

    • Establishing and maintaining the national Design Reference Mission (DRM) to set scientific performance expectations for candidate designs

    • Providing an independent evaluation of the community operational needs, costs, and scientific sociology of a GSMT – then leading the community in understanding the implications of these for both a GSMT and the necessary underlying instrumental and human resource capability.

  • Advise NSF about engineering design performance necessary to respond to the DRM and the technical progress of both projects; this should not be interpreted as AURA/NOAO holding independent reviews of either project.

  • Assure a healthy scientific enterprise in the GSMT era. In this regard, AURA/NOAO should lead in defining “the system”, being certain that it addresses an appropriate range of apertures, suite of instrumentation, and utilization of existing non-federal facilities where available. AURA/NOAO must assure that this system is robust against the delays and uncertainty in the path to an eventual GSMT.

In the longer term:

  • Identify areas of commonality or overlap in technology with a view towards optimizing federal and private budgetary commitments

  • Carry out any appropriate independent technology efforts of importance to both programs.

  • Assist NSF in defining and realizing possible alternatives to a competitive down-select,

  • AURA/NOAO will advise NSF on options for international collaboration at a governmental level

  • NOAO will be the NSF/national presence in any eventual partnership that operates the GSMT.
In order to respond to the new role as defined by NSF, AURA/NOAO is restructuring its existing relationships with both projects, withdrawing from any direct partnership participation, and establishing symmetric interfaces with both projects. AURA, NSF, TMT, and GMT are in active discussion about the necessary means and timescales to address any previous imbalances in support for the two projects.


We have held a series of regional town meetings to discuss the committee’s findings and recommendations with the community and to seek input on the development of an implementation plan. The schedule and locations of these past meetings can be found here. An updated copy of the Presentation given at these Town Meetings can be found here.

If you feel that a town meeting or visit by NSF staff to discuss the senior review report and NSF’s plans for implementation would be helpful, please contact Eileen Friel at

Communications with the Community

Information on Pre-report Town Meetings

We welcome your constructive input. Please send your views, concerns, suggestions or any information you would like us to consider to These communications will not be made public, and comments will be considered confidential.


Roger Blandford - Chair - Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology,                            Stanford Univerisity

Tom Ayres – University of Colorado
Donald Backer – University of California, Berkeley
John Carlstrom – University of Chicago
Karl Gebhardt – University of Texas, Austin
Lynne Hillenbrand – California Institute of Technology
Craig Hogan – University of Washington
John Huchra – Harvard University
Elizabeth Lada – University of Florida
Malcolm Longair – Cambridge University
J. Patrick Looney – Brookhaven National Lab
Bruce Partridge – Haverford College
Vera Rubin – Carnegie Institution of Washington/DTM

The Senior Review Committee is a subcommittee of the MPS Advisory Committee. Its charge can be found here:


For additional information contact:

        Craig Foltz
        (703) 292-4909
        Preferred Contact Method: E-Mail

        Nigel Sharp
        (703) 292-4905
        Preferred Contact Method: E-Mail