Press Release

NSO Response to the NSF Senior Review

By SpaceRef Editor
November 8, 2006
Filed under , , ,

The National Solar Observatory (NSO) is pleased that the National Science Foundation/Division of Astronomy (AST) Senior Review substantially affirms NSO’s long-range planning. We stand ready to work with the NSF in the implementation of the recommendations while ensuring that the scientific community, including students, can continue their advanced research enabled by current NSO facilities until the proposed 4-meter Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST) supplants them.

The Senior Review strongly supports the solar community’s desire to build the ATST as the next major national solar facility that will replace our aging telescopes and advance high-resolution and coronal science to the next level of scientific discovery and revolutionize our understanding of the interactions between the highly ionized solar plasma and solar magnetic fields.

The proposed shutdown of the NSO facilities on Kitt Peak, AZ, and Sacramento Peak, NM, and the transfer of their scientific and engineering talent to ATST are part of the long-range plan put forward by NSO as we transition into the era of the ATST. The divestment of the facilities and the establishment of a new home for NSO will be a complex process entailing:

* A search for organizations that may be interested in assuming ownership and operation of the existing facilities, or

* Preparing for possible demolition and environmental mitigation of the site, and

* Locating a new site to consolidate operations now spread between Sac Peak and Tucson.

The Senior Review recommendation reflects NSF’s understanding of these complexities and encourages an early start for the preparations, *not* an immediate or even rapid closure. The details of the transition from the existing facilities to the new one will be part of the NSF/AST implementation plan. NSO will work closely with AST in shaping that plan.

The Senior Review committee supports our plan that ATST proceed to construction in FY 2009 with a completion in FY 2014 and that other large projects proceed as soon as feasible after ATST is built. NSO has done its homework for ATST, and — as was demonstrated at the recent NSF-sponsored Preliminary Design Review — we have done it extremely well.

While for the most part, the Senior Review endorses the NSO long-range plan; there are some significant differences in what they are recommending to NSF/Astronomy from what our plan calls for. The Senior Review recommends that we should find alternative funding sources for GONG or plan for its closure one year (around late 2009) after the commissioning of the oscillation experiment on NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.

We are concerned that implementation of this recommendation removes a cornerstone of the NSO Program that would enable, with NSO’s other facilities, the comprehensive study of the Sun from its core to its hot corona. If closed, this would mean that the new high-resolution upgrade of GONG, which has enabled local helioseismology, would not complete the collection of data for an entire solar activity cycle.

The GONG science community has produced several compelling arguments why a ground-based oscillations experiment needs to continue and these will be discussed with the NSF. As recommended by the Senior Review, NSO is exploring alternative funding sources to reduce the cost of GONG operations to NSF. Additionally, the NSO long-range plan calls for a slow merging of GONG and the Synoptic Optical Long-term Investigations of the Sun (SOLIS) operations into a single efficient NSO synoptic program that provides data required to put ATST and other space experiments into the context of solar evolution.

The Sun is the most important astronomical object that we study given its direct relevance to the environment, the economy and even the defense of the nation. Therefore, it is important to all our citizens that the advanced research and solar monitoring supported by NSO facilities continue without interruption. It is vitally important to the nation that NSO and NSF work together to ensure NSO solar telescopes continue their advanced research on the Sun until supplanted by the ATST. Thus we will work closely with the NSF to ensure a smooth transition between existing programs and those of the ATST era.

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SpaceRef staff editor.