Guide to Programs Splash Page Skip Navigation Search Guide to Programs    NSF   Questions   NSF E-Bulletin   OLPA Home   NSF Site Map   NSF Home

This document has been archived. For current NSF funding opportunities, see

Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences
Division of Astronomical Sciences

The NSF is the lead Federal agency for the support of ground-based astronomy. Funding is provided through grants, contracts, and cooperative agreements awarded in response to unsolicited, investigator-initiated proposals.

Program areas in the Division of Astronomical Sciences (AST), supported primarily through individual investigator awards, include planetary astronomy, stellar astronomy and astrophysics, galactic astronomy, extragalactic astronomy, and cosmology. A broad base of observational, theoretical, and laboratory research is aimed at understanding the states of matter and physical processes in the Solar System, our Milky Way galaxy, and the universe. Funding is also available for advanced technologies and instrumentation, university radio telescope facilities, and a variety of special programs.

AST supports the development and operation of five National Astronomy Centers: the Gemini Observatory, National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), National Solar Observatory (NSO), National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), and National Astronomy and lonosphere Center (NAIC). The Gemini Observatory is an international partnership that operates two 8-meter optical/infrared telescopes. The astronomy centers are equipped with radio, optical, infrared, and special telescopes that are made available to the scientific community on a competitive basis. Staff members at the centers give technical assistance to visiting scientists, conduct research on their own, and develop advanced instrumentation. AST currently supports the construction of the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA). The Electromagnetic Spectrum Management Unit is responsible for ensuring that the scientific community has access to the radio spectrum for research purposes.

Grants Programs

1. Advanced Technologies and Instrumentation (ATI)

Supports the development and construction of state-of-the-art detectors and instruments for the visible, infrared, and radio regions of the spectrum, including interferometric imaging instrumentation and adaptive optics; and the application of new hardware and software technology and innovative techniques in astronomical research. Instrumentation projects should be driven by scientific considerations and clearly articulated scientific goals. Proposals to the ATI Program should include a brief task implementation plan with milestones, schedules, and costs.

The ATI program director also handles proposals for astronomical instrumentation submitted to the NSF-wide Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) Program.

2. Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Grants (AAG)

Provide individual investigator research grants in the following themes:

  • Planetary Astronomy (PLA)—Theoretical and observational studies of the detailed structure and composition of the surfaces, interiors, and atmospheres of the planets and satellites in the Solar System; the nature of small bodies (asteroids and comets); the interplanetary medium; and the origin and development of the Solar System phenomena.
  • Stellar Astronomy and Astrophysics (SAA)—Theoretical and observational studies of the structure and activity of the Sun and other stars; the physical properties and composition of all types of single and multiple stars; extra-Solar System planet formation and detection; star formation and stellar evolution; stellar nucleosynthesis; and the properties of atoms and molecules of relevance to stellar astronomy.
  • Galactic Astronomy (GAL)—Theoretical and observational studies of the more distant universe. Research topics include galaxy formation, evolution, and interaction; active galaxies; quasars; large-scale structure; and all areas of cosmology.
  • Extragalactic Astronomy and Cosmology (EXC)—Theoretical and observational studies of the more distant universe. Research topics include galaxy formation, evolution, and interaction; active galaxies; quasars; large-scale structure; and all areas of cosmology.

3. Education and Special Programs (ESP)

The ESP activity in the AST Division administers all Foundation-wide (crosscutting) programs as well as programs that cross subdisciplinary lines in astronomy, or that have significant educational components. Programs include the following: Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER)—supports the early career-development activities of teacher-scholars; NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellowships (AAPF)—the only postdoctoral program for astronomers that combines research and education; Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Sites and Supplements—support a large number of research opportunities for undergraduates; Research in Undergraduate Institutions (RUI)—scope of program is similar to regular research grants but supports faculty members at predominantly undergraduate institutions; Research Opportunity Awards (ROA)—a supplement available for active research awards to involve faculty from non-research institutions; Increasing the Participation and Advancement of Women in Academic Science and Engineering Careers (ADVANCE)—offers different options for increasing the participation of women in the scientific and engineering workforce; MPS Internships in Public Science Education (MPS-IPSE)—strives to bring science research results from MPS disciplines to the public by funding interns; MPS Distinguished International Postdoctoral Research Fellowships (MPS-DRF)—fellowships to conduct research at leading institutions outside the United States.

4. Electromagnetic Spectrum Management (ESM)

The objective of ESM is to ensure access by the scientific community to portions of the radio spectrum needed for research purposes. ESM does this by representing the interests of NSF and the scientific community in the field of telecommunications management and regulation. This involves in particular (1) the establishment of national radio regulations and operating procedures and technical standards under those regulations related to the use of the allocated frequency bands, by representing the NSF on the Interdepartment Radio Advisory Committee (IRAC) and its subcommittees and ad hoc committees and (2) the establishment of international radio regulations by providing input into U.S. Government preparations for World Radiocommunications Conferences through the Radio Conference Subcommittee (RCS), and serving as technical advisor to U.S. delegations to World Radiocommunication Conferences, when appropriate.


1. Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA)

Originally referred to as the Millimeter Array (MMA), this project was conceived as an aperture-synthesis radio telescope operating in the wavelength range from 3 to 0.4 mm. ALMA will be the world's most sensitive, highest resolution millimeter-wavelength telescope. It will combine an angular resolution comparable to that of the Hubble Space Telescope with the sensitivity of a single antenna nearly 100 meters in diameter. The array will provide a testing ground for theories of star birth and stellar evolution, galaxy formation and evolution, and the evolution of the universe itself. It will reveal the inner workings of the central black hole “engines” that power quasars, and will make possible a search for planets around hundreds of nearby stars.

The interferometer will be located at 5000 m altitude near San Pedro de Atacama, Chile (the so-called Llano de Chajnantor area). The goal of the U.S.—European ALMA partnership is an array consisting of 64 antennas 12 meters in diameter. The U.S. side of the project is led by Associated Universities, Inc./National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Europe is an equal partner in ALMA, with funding and execution of the project carried out through the European Southern Observatory (ESO). Canada has proposed to join the U.S. side of the ALMA partnership and Japan remains interested in the possibility of joining the project at a later date. NSF provides funding for the U.S. participation. After several years of detailed design and development, construction activities began in fiscal year 2002. Construction is expected to take 9 years.

2. Gemini Observatory

An international partnership involving the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Chile, Brazil, and Argentina. The observatory operates two 8-meter telescopes: one in the Northern Hemisphere on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, and one in the Southern Hemisphere on Cerro Pachon, Chile. The twin telescopes are infrared-optimized, have superb image quality, and provide unprecedented optical and infrared coverage of the northern and southern skies for astronomical research.

These telescopes provide astronomers from the partnership countries with world-class observing facilities. Observing time is assigned on the basis of scientific merit. NSF acts as the executive agency for the partnership, and the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. (AURA)—a consortium of 37 U.S. and international university, educational, and nonprofit institutions—manages the Gemini Observatory.

3. National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC)

A visitor-oriented national research center supported by NSF that focuses on radio and radar astronomy and atmospheric sciences. NAIC's headquarters in Ithaca, New York, are operated and managed for NSF by Cornell University. Its principal observing facilities are 19 kilometers south of the city of Arecibo, Puerto Rico. NAIC provides telescope users with a wide range of instrumentation for research and observation. The center has a permanent staff of scientists, engineers, and technicians who are available to help visiting investigators with their observation programs.

NAIC's principal astronomical research instrument is a 305-meter fixed spherical radio/radar telescope, the world's largest single radio wavelength reflector. Its frequency capabilities range from 25 megahertz to 10 gigahertz. Transmitters include an S-band (2,380-megahertz) radar system for planetary studies and a 430-megahertz radar system for aeronomy studies.

4. National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO)

A national center for research in ground-based optical and infrared astronomy, supported by NSF. The NOAO staff of astronomers, engineers, and various support personnel are available to assist qualified visiting scientists in their use of the facilities, including large optical telescopes, observing instrumentation, and data analysis equipment.

Headquartered in Tucson, Arizona, NOAO is operated and managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. (AURA). NOAO is composed of the following observatories:

  • Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO)—The observing facilities of KPNO are on Kitt Peak, a 2,089-meter mountain 90 kilometers southwest of Tucson, Arizona. KPNO includes the 3.5-meter WIYN telescope, the 4-meter Mayall telescope, a 2.1-meter general-purpose reflector, and the WIYN 0.9-meter imaging telescope. Numerous other telescopes operated by universities and private consortia are also tenants on Kitt Peak.
  • Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO)—Qualified scientists are provided with telescopes and related facilities for astronomical research in the Southern Hemisphere. CTIO has offices, laboratories, and living quarters in the coastal city of La Serena, Chile, 482 kilometers north of Santiago. The observing facilities are on Cerro Tololo, a 2,194-meter mountain on the western slopes of the Andes, 64 kilometers inland from La Serena. CTIO operates the 4-meter Blanco telescope—a near twin to the 4-meter Mayall at Kitt Peak; a general-purpose 1.5-meter reflector; and 1.3-meter and 0.9-meter imaging telescopes. The 1-meter-class telescopes are operated in a consortium with a number of U.S. universities and nonprofit institutions—the SMARTS Consortium. In addition, a new-technology 4-meter telescope—the Southern Observatory for Astrophysical Research (SOAR)—is nearing completion on nearby Cerro Pachon.
  • NOAO Gemini Science Center (NGSC)—NGSC serves as the gateway to the international Gemini Observatory for the U.S. astronomical community and also represents the U.S. scientific, technical, and instrumentation interests in the international community of the Gemini Project. In addition, NOAO administers the following programs:
    • Telescope System Instrumentation Program (TSIP)—Provides funds for construction of major research instrumentation at private observatories in return for community access to the largest private observing facilities.
    • NOAO Public Affairs and Educational Outreach Program (PAEO)—Provides access to the science and scientists of NOAO for the K-12 and college-level communities. Programs include outreach and educational resources for families, students, and teachers, from kindergarten through the postgraduate level. The NOAO Visitor Centers on Kitt Peak and Cerro Tololo offer a variety of tours, Web pages, and volunteer opportunities as well as nightly observing programs.
    • NOAO scientists and engineers are actively involved in technology development aimed at the next generation of very large, ground-based telescopes, including the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope and the Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope.

5. National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO)

Offers the use of radio astronomy facilities through a competitive proposal process. The staff at NRAO help visiting scientists use the large radio antennas, receivers, and other equipment required to detect, measure, and identify radio waves from astronomical objects. The NRAO facilities include the following:

  • The 100-meter Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT), located in Green Bank, West Virginia, was dedicated in August 2000 and is now being commissioned. This telescope will eventually cover a frequency range of 100 MHz to 100 GHz. The telescope is presently being used for scientific observations at frequencies between 250 MHz and 50 GHz.
  • The Very Large Array (VLA), located west of Socorro, New Mexico, consists of 27 antennas and conducts aperture synthesis observations of cosmic radio sources at high angular resolution. The VLA covers a frequency range spanning large portions of the 73 MHz to 50 GHz range. Significant upgrades to the VLA are underway and will improve the array's sensitivity and spectral agility.
  • The Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) is a transcontinental network of ten 25-meter antennas that operate at individual frequency bands ranging between 330 MHz and 43 GHz. VLBA antennas are located at ten separate sites—eight in the continental United States, one in St Croix, and one in Hawaii. The VLBA is used to study cosmic radio sources at unprecedented angular resolution.

NRAO actively supports student research at all of its facilities, and telescopes and scientists are available to support research at the undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate levels. The Green Bank and VLA sites include recently expanded visitor facilities that are the foundation of education and public outreach activities at NRAO. The NRAO headquarters are located in Charlottesville, Virginia, on the grounds of the University of Virginia.

6. National Solar Observatory (NSO)

Makes available to qualified scientists the world's largest collection of optical and infrared solar telescopes and auxiliary instrumentation for observation of the solar photosphere, chromosphere, and corona.

NSO has observing facilities atop Kitt Peak, Arizona, and Sacramento Peak, New Mexico (NSO/SP). Kitt Peak telescopes include the 1.5-meter McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope (the world's largest solar research instrument) and a solar vacuum telescope/magnetograph. The McMath complex is designed primarily for solar observations but is also used for planetary and stellar observations and for laboratory high-resolution spectroscopy. The principal instrument of NSO/SP is the 0.76-meter Dunn Solar Telescope, a vacuum tower telescope equipped with adaptive optics to produce the world’s best spatial resolution for solar studies. Also available are spectrographs and the Advanced Stokes Polarimeter. The Evans Solar Facility is a 40-centimeter aperture coronagraph with spectrographs and a coronal photometer. NSO operates the Global Oscillation Network Group (GONG), a worldwide network of six solar telescopes for helioseismology, and the GONG Data Center in Tucson, Arizona. NSO is leading the design effort for a new 4-meter Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST).

NSO also maintains the National Solar Observatory Digital Library, which provides free public access to an archive of major NSO data sets. These include the Kitt Peak Vacuum Telescope magnetograms and spectroheliograms; the Fourier Transform Spectrometer transformed spectra; the Sacramento Peak Evans Facility spectroheliograms and coronal scans; and solar activity indices. NSO’s educational outreach activities include a variety of programs for undergraduate and graduate students and science educators.

7. University Radio Observatories (UROs)

NSF-supported UROs serve as centers for focused scientific research and technical development in radio astronomy through the collaborative involvement of faculty, research engineers, and students. The emphasis of the program is to maintain a presence for radio astronomy in the university environment for the purpose of fostering innovation and training upcoming generations of students in the field. UROs also provide research opportunities of scope and risk not typically available at the national centers.

The URO program provides funding for telescope operations and for equipment development at existing facilities, and may support construction of new facilities. It also provides partial or full salary support for research faculty, engineers, and technicians; partial summer salaries for teaching faculty; and stipend support for both graduate and undergraduate students.

URO awards are for 3-year intervals and are renewable. UROs fully supported by NSF provide the general astronomical community with access to between one-third and one-half of all telescope observing time. UROs also develop and maintain a strong program of student education and training in radio astronomy and conduct public outreach activities appropriate to the location and nature of the facility.

Back to top
The National Science Foundation
4201 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, Virginia 22230, USA
Tel: 703-292-5111, FIRS: 800-877-8339 | TDD: 703-292-5090