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The "Aspen" Program: Decision Time

The Board of Directors has adopted a resolution that addresses the next steps in the process to design and deploy some of the major instruments that emerged from the multi-year process of discussions. This has been a stimulating process, with the initial phase culminating in the report Scientific Horizons at the Gemini Observatory: Exploring a Universe of Matter, Energy, and Life, which is available here on the Gemini website. The instruments identified in this report were subjected to further discussion, and a more limited set of instruments were then selected for detailed design and for feasibility studies. Those have been completed and the text below is an abridged version of the Board’s resolution on how the partnership will proceed. (We have excised some sensitive financial information.) As you will see, some very powerful new instruments are anticipated. Further work is needed to determine the final complement of instruments that will be mounted as a result of the entire process. The partners have worked hard to determine costs and the possibilities of funding to enable these instruments, the proposal teams have worked hard as well developing detailed proposals, and the Gemini Science Committee and the Board have discussed, debated, and decided a number of challenging questions. I hope you all share the anticipation of the GSC and the Board in the future of Gemini instrumentation.

Bruce W. Carney
Chair, Board of Directors
Gemini Observatory

Gemini Board Resolution 2005A.16, adopted Friday, August 5, 2005


The “Aspen process” engaged a large number of astronomers throughout the partnership in a new approach to the future of Gemini instrumentation. National representatives met, and then partners' delegates met in Aspen, to discuss the key science questions that we now recognize, and to which we might obtain answers with suitably powerful observational attacks. The Aspen process, detailed in the document: "Scientific Horizons at the Gemini Observatory: Exploring a Universe of Matter, Energy, and Life" identified many of these key questions, and the types of instruments that might be designed and built to address them. From a suite of almost four dozen instruments identified during the initial discussions in the science theme panels, a prioritized selection, based on new scientific challenges, was developed for further discussion. This list included eleven instruments and two major facilities (new top ends) that would be required for some of the proposed instruments. The Gemini Science Committee discussed the science goals, the capabilities of the proposed instruments, and rough cost estimates provided by the Observatory and independent reviewers in October 2003. Based on this information, the GSC recommended three top-priority instruments, including a wide field multi-object spectrograph (WFMOS), a high-resolution near-infrared spectrograph (HRNIRS), and an extreme adaptive optics coronagraph (ExAOC). Five additional capabilities were identified for further feasibility studies or possible negotiation for importation of an existing instrument to Gemini. At its November 2003 meeting, the Gemini Board endorsed the GSC report and directed the Observatory to undertake design studies for ExAOC and HRNIRS, feasibility studies for WFMOS and ground-layer adaptive optics (GLAO), and to explore modifications of existing or already planned instruments that would address key Aspen science questions.

These studies have yielded design proposals for ExAOC and HRNIRS and some cost estimates for all four capabilities, including WFMOS and GLAO. In parallel, the Board met in a retreat in September 2004 to discuss the operational needs of the Observatory and the costs and challenges of the new Gemini instrumentation. In concert with the Executive Agency and the partners' funding agencies, the Gemini Finance Committee identified a funding envelope for the Aspen instrumentation initiatives of $75M. At its May 2005 meeting, the Board recognized this envelope would be inadequate to design, construct, and commission all four instruments on the Gemini telescopes.

Also at the May 2005 meeting, the Board listened to presentations on the science opportunities enabled by each of the four instruments, and reviewed a number of options devised to address as much science as possible within the funding envelope. The Board sought the advice of the GSC, who conducted an 8-hour telecon in early June, and recommended a series of priorities to maximize the science opportunities. The Board accepts these recommendations, and looks forward to broad-based participation by the partners in the design, construction, and exploitation of the instruments that will be built and deployed in the coming years.

The Board notes in particular that construction funding will be committed at this point for ExAOC, and will require additional information before committing to construction funds for the remaining instruments. Given the initial commitments in this resolution, the Board in addition asks the Observatory to provide at the November 2006 meeting, possible scenarios which in accordance with the International Agreement, show for the totality of the approved Aspen program how an equitable sharing of both the scientific return and work across the partnership can be achieved. Partner representatives on the Board should be engaged by the Observatory as necessary during the Aspen development program to help ensure that an agreed solution to the distribution of Partner shares of the IDF is reached.


The Board agrees with the GSC that if it proves feasible, WFMOS offers the most transformative science opportunities. The Board directs the Observatory to:

(a) Proceed with rigorous design studies to determine the detailed technical viability and cost of WFMOS. Because of the magnitude and uncertainty of the costs of the WFMOS instrument, software, and data flow, and to explore what other groups might be interested in participating in WFMOS, the Board requests that two openly-competed concept design studies be initiated. The Announcement of Opportunity should ask that proposers indicate, at the time of submission of mandatory Letters of Intent, how the necessary partner shares would be realized by the proposing consortium. In addition to the technical viability and cost, the design studies should provide a detailed account of the scope, methodology, and cost of the proposed scientific program. This should include mechanisms to assure equitable scientific return to the partners as well as approaches to maximize the involvement of the best scientific talent of the Gemini community. The cost of the proposed scientific program should be identified separately as input to the long-range planning processes of the partner agencies.

(b) Continue negotiations with Subaru to ensure a partnership for the development of WFMOS. Indeed, the Board looks forward to increased engagement with the Japanese community in mutual research endeavors.

Further, the Board requests that the results of these studies be summarized and presented to the GSC for scientific comment and community input in time for a meeting in October 2006. Subsequent to the GSC deliberations, the Board expects the Observatory to present during its November 2006 meeting a programmatic presentation, including:

  • Science relevance,
  • A comprehensive model of how nights between Subaru and Gemini might be allocated to accomplish both the WFMOS science and provide the Japanese community with balanced access to Gemini nights,
  • The managerial processes that might be employed,
  • Planning for data archiving, reduction pipelines, and data dissemination models

The Board also recognizes that there are numerous operational issues that must be addressed in consequence of undertaking a new partnership with our Japanese colleagues, and that we need to understand these issues as soon as possible. The Board therefore charges the Director to develop a white paper that addresses the goals, metrics, and milestones with timelines that will guide the discussions with Subaru. The Board echoes the GSC's desire to have a clear articulation of the arrangements that promote successful scientific, technical, operational, and cultural collaboration, and asks to have the white paper available for discussion at the November 2005 Board meeting.

The Board expects that final memoranda, actions, and principles of collaborative commitment be captured in a detailed document by October 1, 2006. The Director shall then circulate this document to the Board and to the funding agencies for their consideration. The Board anticipates that at the November 2006 meeting the partnership will determine whether to commit construction funding to WFMOS on the basis of the design studies, collaborative working agreements, and justifiable cost estimates for the total WFMOS project and its two key science issues, dark energy and Galactic archaeology.


The Board also agrees with the GSC that the search for planets around other stars is a key science theme, and that Gemini's optics provide an excellent platform for an advanced adaptive optics capability. As discussed in Board Resolution 2005.A.1, the Board has endorsed the Director's selection of the team to build the ExAOC, and directs the Observatory to commence contract negotiations to construct the instrument, consistent with available funding and commitment authority.


The Board recognizes that the available funding envelope, while very generous, is inadequate to support construction of the top three priority Aspen instruments, and the Board cannot endorse at this time an award for the construction of HRNIRS as proposed by either of the two teams. The Board recognizes that a significant fraction of the key scientific areas of inquiry proposed during and subsequent to the Aspen meeting would be unrealized without this instrument. If the WFMOS proves to not be feasible at the November 2006 meeting, the Board wishes to then undertake the science enabled by HRNIRS. Specifically, the Board endorses the resolution of the GSC:>

“The GSC sees the WFMOS Concept Design Review as a critical point within the Aspen decision tree. If continuing with WFMOS into the build phase is deemed to be unfeasible at the time of this review, then the GSC strongly recommends that the Observatory proceed immediately with the procurement of HRNIRS. However, it would be prudent for the GSC to rapidly reassess at this point the various HRNIRS options (full-HRNIRS, HRNIRS[R=70K], HRNIRS[MCAO-MOS]), to determine whether they will still be timely and/or competitive by the end of the build phase ...”

Because the search for low-mass planets is such a timely and exciting topic, the Observatory recommended that a component of HRNIRS be explored for rapid implementation, and the GSC endorsed this concept, now referred to as the "Precision Radial Velocity Spectrometer" (PRVS). The Board agrees with this recommendation, and directs the Observatory to quickly undertake two competitively-selected concept design studies, with costs, schedules, and capabilities presented to the Board as soon as possible; the goal should be in time for GSC review prior to the May 2006 meeting of the Board. Certainly such discussions must occur no later than the November 2006 Board meeting, following GSC commentary.


Finally, the Board wishes to retain the option of proceeding with possible deployment of ground-layer adaptive optics, GLAO, and directs the Observatory to commence testing atop Mauna Kea to determine if the site is amenable to such corrections of image quality. The Board expects that such work would commence in mid-2005, and wishes to be informed of the outcome of such work at its November 2006 meeting.


The Board has asked for considerable additional information in terms of an operational white paper, two pairs of concept design studies, and site testing. The Board's goal therein is to enable us to decide how to allocate the remaining Aspen instrument funding in the most rational and scientifically productive manner at its November 2006 meeting.

In summary,

  1. The Board is affirming that ExAOC is the highest priority item which should proceed irrespective of the eventual shape of the rest of the Aspen program.
  2. HRNIRS will not proceed as originally envisaged; however, two design studies will be undertaken for PRVS which should be completed and reviewed no later than the October 2006 GSC meeting, so that GSC recommendations about the PRVS can be considered during the November 2006 Board meeting. If in November 2006 the Board decides not to proceed with WFMOS, then the Board will discuss whether to proceed with HRNIRS and, if so, which options it might pursue.
  3. WFMOS should be the subject of two competitive studies. The Observatory will consult with the designated members of the Board by the end of the Announcement of Opportunity phase of the program if it does not appear that an equitable distribution of Partner shares is forthcoming from the planned competition for WFMOS.
  4. Site tests will be undertaken on Mauna Kea to determine if characteristics are consistent with performance goals of the GLAO system. This program will be completed by the November 2006 Board meeting.

The scientific horizon for Gemini made available through the Aspen process and the contributions made to the partnership are likely to lead to major advances in science. The Board is very grateful to all the people and institutions which have made this possible, from national pre-Aspen teams to the Aspen participants, and including, of course, the Observatory staff and the GSC.