The US Ground Based O/IR System

The ensemble of ground-based optical-infrared (O/IR) observatories operated by US federal and non-federal organizations for excellence in scientific research, education and public outreach.

The System enables experimentation and exploration throughout the observable Universe.

NOAO operates some of the most scientifically productive facilities within the System, independent of aperture size. NOAO is also the community gateway to NSF-enabled open access nights on non-NOAO System facilities.


System origins, NOAO roles

After significant preliminary discussion during the 1990s (e.g., 1995 McCray report, A Strategy for Ground Based Optical and Infrared Astronomy), the concept of a NSF-supported optical-infrared (O/IR) astronomy base program was first articulated by the 2001 Decadal Survey report and affirmed by the NSF Division of Astronomical Sciences Senior Review Committee in 2006. 

“U.S. ground-based optical and infrared viewed by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the astronomical community as a single integrated system drawing on both federal and nonfederal funding sources. Effective national organizations are essential to coordinate, and to ensure the success and efficiency of, these systems. Universities and independent observatories should work with the national organizations to ensure the success of these systems.”

—Astronomy and Astrophysics for the Millenium, Executive Summary (2001)

For a more complete origins overview, see NOAO and the O/IR System (Silva & Blum, 2009).

Since 2001, NOAO has lead or managed a variety of System development activities. Through these activities, NOAO seeks ways to help System facilities work together to address the overall needs of US astronomers while allowing independent groups to pursue their own programs.

NOAO works with funding agencies to gain resources to help build the System both through NOAO and non-NOAO groups and sponsors a number of community based meetings and panels to help do this in a way that supports efficeint use of federal funding across the System.

The US O/IR System is posed to take a giant leap forward in the 2020s with the advent of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) and Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT).

An NRC panel is current preparing recommendations for optimizing the US O/IR System in the era of LSST.

System facilities

NSF-sponsored community-access available via NOAO observing proposals

Community-access available via other access points

No current community access

System development activities

Current NOAO System development activities

New System facilities under development

System technology development programs

System capability definition, community workshops (NOAO sponsored or hosted)

System capability definition, committees (NOAO sponsored or hosted)

Last updated or reviewed June 4, 2020.