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Aspen Program Update and Announcements of Opportunity

Nearly two years have passed since the Aspen Science workshop and, since then, a wide range of significant activities have occurred. The original Aspen science case has been refined and enhanced through a comprehensive set of design and feasibility studies for a number of extremely ambitious instruments. These instruments are unlike any that have been built in ground based astronomy and stand to catapult forward our understanding of the universe, leading to the types of major scientific breakthroughs envisioned high atop the mountains in Colorado two years ago.

The next steps in the Aspen development program are articulated in a Gemini Board Resolution. This resolution summarizes discussions and activity conducted over the past 2 years and directs the Observatory to pursue a combination of conceptual design studies, construction activity, and a site testing campaign on Mauna Kea. More specifically, the Board has decided to go forward with the Extreme Adaptive Optics Coronagraph (ExAOC), and Gemini anticipates entering contract negotiations to build and deploy this exciting instrument, which will be capable of direct imaging and spectroscopy of extra-solar planets. In addition to building the ExAOC, Announcements of Opportunity to participate in conceptual design studies of the Wide Field Multi-Object Spectrograph (WFMOS) and Precision Radial Velocity Spectrograph (PRVS) are now available. An Announcement of Opportunity to conduct a Mauna Kea Site testing program is also being released in support of a potential future Ground Layer Adaptive Optics (GLAO) system. Briefly, these AO's are the first steps in defining:

  • WFMOS AO: 2 competitive concept-level design studies for WFMOS, intended to support research in key areas including dark energy and Galactic archeology.
  • PRVS AO: 2 competitive concept-level design studies for a near-IR PRVS, intended to support a key component of the HRNIRS science case, namely the search for terrestrial-class planets around low-mass stars.
  • Mauna Kea Site testing program AO: A site-testing program, targeting high-resolution measurements of the ground layer turbulence profile above Mauna Kea, in support of the potential deployment of a GLAO system at Gemini-N.

All of these studies will be completed in time for consideration at the November 2006 Board meeting. At that time a decision will be made to either pursue WFMOS or, in the event of an unsuccessful study phase, build HRNIRS instead. A decision to go forward with a conceptual design study of the GLAO system is pending results of site seeing measurements taken through mid 2006. Similarly, a decision regarding proceeding with the construction of PRVS depends on the outcome of the studies for this instrument, which will be started soon. Components of the Aspen Program not mentioned in the Board Resolution also include augmenting GSAOI and FLAMINGOS-2 with specialized filters to support searches for so-called "First Light" objects in the early universe, and the use of the high resolution mid-IR spectrometer TEXES (built by the University of Texas) on Gemini-N in 2006, which among various science applications will support studies of gaseous proto-planetary disks, a major facet of the Aspen science mission.