NRAO User Committee Report 2001
This is an exciting time for NRAO. Existing telescopes --
VLA and VLBA -- are working well, and the prospects
for new instruments -- GBT, EVLA, and ALMA --
are very bright indeed. In addition to opening new vistas
in resolution and sensitivity, the Observatory is developing
plans for wide-ranging archiving of radio data and for smoothed
observation and data reduction procedures, all of which will make
radio wavelengths more accessible to the general astronomy
community. We applaud these efforts.
Following recent tradition, we include extensive comments
on various Observatory telescopes and projects below.
Some highlights of our recommendations include:
Finally, we thank the Observatory staff for avoiding the
traditional radio band names in favor of frequency- and wavelength-based
names during the committee meeting. We hope that this
philosophy becomes accepted throughout the Observatory.
- We strongly endorse the recently-started program of grants
for GBT hardware developers. We further endorse the proposed
grants program for GBT users in general.
- We are excited that EVLA phase 1 is rapidly becoming reality.
It is important to minimize down time between "old" and "new" VLA,
and we are happy to hear that it will be possible to run
the old and new correlators in parallel during EVLA development.
- We strongly encourage the Observatory to expand dynamic scheduling
at the VLA and elsewhere, to make efficient use of the telescope in
both good weather and bad.
- We are glad to see that aperture synthesis data reduction in
AIPS++ is being tested by some staff scientists in Socorro
outside the AIPS++ group. It is clear that continued development
and debugging is necessary before aperture synthesis work in
AIPS++ will be useful to a general audience. We encourage the
Observatory to continue and expand in-house use of AIPS++; until
NRAO insiders use AIPS++, outsiders won't touch it.
- Until AIPS++ matures, support for classic AIPS must be maintained.
- The Observatory is making progress in Education and Public Outreach,
but more coordination and effort are needed.
- We applaud the Observatory's efforts towards the National Virtual
Observatory, along with other proposals to make radio data archives
more accessible to the general community. These are long term projects.
In the shorter term, the Observatory
should move relatively quickly to (1) make the VLA data archive web-accessible
and (2) to develop an archive system for the GBT.
- Implement pulsar folding mode on the GBT correlator! Implement pulsar
folding mode on the GBT correlator! Implement pulsar folding mode on the GBT
(Sorry, the committee chair got a little out of
- We greatly appreciate the VLA calibrator database and its
web interface, and we encourage a merged VLA/VLBA calibrator
We are generally pleased with the continued support of the
VLA and are greatly encouraged that the VLA is the second most cited
Observatory in refereed publications. The Pie Town A array
observations were a great success this year. The addition of JObserve
is of great use to the community.
We are pleased that infrastructure and maintenance items
such as painting and railroad ties are being addressed
We view the high frequency capabilities of the VLA to be
very important and we endorse the support given to these observing
modes. We encourage more support in the form of reorganization of the
information on the web, including links to important memos and a
checklist for 43 GHz observing schedules, and in help from experienced
staff to novice high frequency observers. We also suggest the
propagation of the phase monitoring data along with the astronomical data.
To further support the high frequency capabilities, we
encourage more aggressive dynamic scheduling. While we feel that
some fixed scheduling should always be available, much more
dynamic scheduling would be productive. Gaps in the schedule of
1/2 to 1 hour are acceptable and could be filled with monitoring
or snapshot programs.
We are exited that the first phase of the EVLA project is nearly underway.
The planned expansion of the capabilities of the VLA in
terms of sensitivity and performance is extremely exciting for radio
astronomy. We greet the appointment of Peter Napier to lead the EVLA project
with great enthusiasm, although this move will be a loss to
the ALMA project.
We are also very happy to see that planned EVLA activities will
not disrupt the operations of the VLA in any major way. We
strongly endorse the concept of parallel operation of old and new
correlators as the EVLA systems come on line.
We are also very pleased to see that planning of phase 2 of
the EVLA project is underway. We continue to endorse and encourage
the involvement of the community in these planning activities,
including the upcoming planning meeting. (As an aside, we note that
meetings in late August are inconvenient for many of us due to
teaching commitments.) We endorse continued studies of how
EVLA-2 can interact with other planned array projects, particularly
LOFAR and SKA. The Observatory should seriously consider how
components of the EVLA-2 might be used in the eventual development
of the SKA. In particular, non-traditional telescope
designs might be considered in place of conventional 25 m dishes.
We applaud the many and varied efforts by the Observatory
to increase community awareness and use of the VLBA. Unfortunately,
we must echo our statement from last year that this is a long-term
activity whose impact is unlikely to be apparent after only a few
months or even a year or two. The current efforts (data calibration,
continued community outreach, sessions at AAS meetings and at the
Synthesis Summer School) should certainly be continued and ultimately
assessed. We continue to feel that more astronomers would use the
array if the perception that VLBI observations are extremely
difficult can be reduced through innovative user support activities,
like those NRAO has recently implemented.
NRAO staff should continue to observe polarization calibrators with
the VLA so that the polarization capabilities of the VLBA can be
fully utilized. The results of these observations should continue to
be made available online.
As the cumulative list of observed sources grows, it will be
necessary to eventually create a database of observed sources. The
text listing is suitable now, but some thought should be given to the
ultimate creation of a database of observed sources.
We applaud the investigation of magnetic disks as an alternate
recording medium for VLBI data. While tapes are still more
cost-effective than disks, we look forward to the day when the
significant operational overhead due to tapes can be phased out.
We were impressed by Miller Goss's presentation of the pulsar
observations undertaken by Walter Brisken as part of his thesis.
Although it has been difficult and time-consuming, the finally
available capability of the correlator to operate in this
original-design mode is an important development. This significant
observational enhancement to the VLBA will allow VLBI observations of
many pulsars instead of just the brightest few and lead to new and
interesting scientific results.
As AIPS continues to be the primary reduction package for VLBA data,
NRAO must continue to maintain the current level of
AIPS support. As AIPS++ becomes more widely used, efforts should be
made to allow complete reduction of VLBI data within AIPS++ and
analysis tools peculiar to VLBI observations should also be made
available. Note 200 of the VLBI note series, which outlines
requirements for VLBI data reduction in AIPS++ should be consulted as
these capabilities are developed.
VLBA science results should continue to be prominently featured in
Observatory press releases and used for public outreach. The
high-quality and unique science results the array can produce are one
of the amazing technical accomplishments of our era. We encourage
the inclusion of VLBA images in any archive of NRAO science images.
Response to specific questions:
1) Given the large fraction of VLBA observing time that is scheduled
dynamically, the traditional paper schedule is beginning to outlive
its usefulness. As a replacement we recommend a Web-based schedule
tool that allows users to see their placement in the dynamic queue
along with other information. A similar tool should be available for
the normally scheduled observations. The current queue listing is
helpful, but far more useful would be a listing of the queue updated
on a regular basis (daily or weekly) showing project placement and
the likelihood of observation in the near term.
We recommend that proposals only be submitted to one location for
VLBA proposals including the GBT. If it could be coordinated with
the National Astronomy & Ionosphere Center, a single submission
address (e.g., email@example.com) for joint VLBA-AO proposals would
4c) The reorganization of the VLBA (and NRAO) website has been
helpful. Since the overall website must fulfill multiple goals
(public outreach, observer information, data resource, etc.) it is
critical that the design never be "frozen" so that it can be modified
to respond to changing needs. Some effort should be made to ensure
that non-VLBI experts can easily obtain enough information about the
VLBA to submit sensible proposals. Extra online information for 3mm
observing (beyond the Observational Status Summary) should be updated
and expanded. The vlbi-exploder archive should be made available
online. Finally, some uniformity in file types should be enforced.
There is a mix of plain text, pdf, postscript and html files
available, which makes accessing the information more difficult. If
postscript is offered, PDF should also be available. HTML should be
the default format provided for information online and plain text
should be converted to this format.
Unified Calibrator Database & User Interface
Currently, NRAO staff maintain two separate databases of calibrators
suitable for interferometric observations. The reason two distinct
databases exist is partly historic and partly scientific. Since the VLA and
VLBA became operational at very different times, two separate databases
were created and subsequently used and updated. Scientificly, some
sources suitable for the calibration of VLA data are not suitable for VLBI
With the recent expansion of the VLA calibrator list to
include high frequency calibrators and the expansion
of the number of calibrators cataloged for VLBI observations through
surveys, it is now appropriate to merge the two databases.
By merging the two databases, significant staff time (used for
list maintenance, monitoring and updating) is likely to be saved
over the longer term and users will not have to search both
databases for suitable calibrators.
We urge the NRAO to merge the two calibrator lists and expand and
enhance the user interface to the database following the rough
outline presented by Greg Taylor at the User's committee meeting.
Care should be taken to ensure that users may easily search,
characterize and choose calibrators for their observations.
Adequate source information, perhaps including source maps, UV
plots, historic flux levels or other information should be
provided for at least the most important calibrators.
Staff expertise should be used to categorize or rank the calibrators
in such a way that a user can make a suitable calibrator choice with
the information provided.
The calibrator database should be available online along with
adequate documentation on its structure and a "How to" description of
how to pick suitable calibrators. The current VLA calibrator
interface is very usable and user-friendly. Its best features should
certainly be retained in any merged system. We note that other
observatories (OVRO, BIMA, IRAM etc.) in addition to current NRAO
online resources all contain excellent "pieces" to the overall puzzle
of an excellent user interface. NRAO should seek to use existing
interfaces and systems available both internally and externally to
reduce the development time for the merged database interface.
It may also make the most sense to out source the creation of any
interface tool, which would minimize the impact on scientific staff
resources, while taking advantage of the
experience in the commercial sector for user interface creation.
The overarching theme in developing this merged database system is to
"Keep it Simple". Provide all that is needed, but not more and stay
away from overly complicated interface design.
We are excited by the excellent performance that the GBT has
shown to date, although disappointed that hardware difficulties
have slowed commissioning. We look forward to the scheduling of
user programs in coming months. We wholeheartedly endorse the
financial support of user-built instrumentation, though we note
that that the April 2001 deadline was not well known through the
community, and there was very little time between announcement of
the program and the deadline for proposals.
We are glad to hear that the spectral line and cross-product
modes of the GBT correlator have been implemented (though not yet
fully tested with the telescope). Reiterating a statement in
last year's report, we note that pulsar observers are expected to
be major users of the GBT, and we urge the rapid completion of
the correlator's pulsar-folding mode. While alternative pulsar
backends are available, they have significantly smaller
bandwidths and fewer spectral channels than will be available
with the GBT correlator.
turret drive system, allowing a change of receivers without
moving the telescope in stow position, should be given a high
priority. Motion of the turret should also be fully integrated
into the monitor and control system, rather than requiring
separate, manual operation by the operators. At Arecibo, the
turret can rotate any feed into position within seconds,
completely automatically. While such high-speed changes are not
critical at the GBT, fast feed changes will will significantly
improve the efficiency of some projects, and are important for
multi-frequency observations of time-variable sources and for
We continue to encourage research and development of phased array
A significant use of the GBT will be to fill in the "zero spacing"
in VLA maps. It is important that this capability be fully developed
(i.e., the relevant software written, perhaps in AIPS++, and a brief
We applauds the considerable progress made toward making ALMA a
reality in the past year. The inclusion of the Japanese and the
clarification of the partnership with the Europeans appear to
have considerably strengthened the prospects for the rapid
progress of the project. We are also pleased that the
inclusion of the Japanese partners has not been at the expense of
1/3 of the support from the NSF, but a smaller fraction, the
result being that the inclusion of another partner will expand
the scope of the project, not merely reduce costs for the
We hope that ideas being tried out at the GBT, particularly
financial support of outside groups to develop instrumentation,
can be applied to ALMA as well. We feel strongly that existing
millimeter University groups need to be included in the ALMA
development process. We are pleased that some ALMA memos have
been generated from outside of the NRAO, and hope that the
fraction of university-based input will continue to grow. We
would like to know of any plans of collaboration between the ALMA
and CARMA projects, since the science and technology of these two
efforts are so closely related.
The NRAO needs to continue to communicate often with the radio astronomy
community when letters of support are needed, as was done this past spring
for ALMA. We are not always aware of this need, and appreciated the "heads
up" that was sent out.
We are extremely enthusiastic about the new NRAO grants
program. This is part of a package of enhanced support for US users of
NRAO facilities, which also includes complete page charges for publications
of results from NRAO telescopes and up to $1000 of travel support for
observations and data reduction, including archival data, at NRAO facilities.
All of this is very good news for the US radio astronomy community.
Many of us, particularly those based in universities, experience
"double jeopardy", first in getting financial support for our
research from the NSF through their intensely competitive
grants program, and then in getting telescope time through
NRAO's competitive proposal process. We recognize that
many of our colleagues have succumbed to the temptation of "single
jeopardy" NASA support which comes automatically with telescope time
awards on HST, Chandra, and other space-based optical, infrared,
X-ray, and gamma-ray observatories. This imbalance in funding
opportunities over the last decade has had the effect of channeling
graduate students out of ground-based radio astronomy. We applaud
the initiative to start a small grants program to
support research using new radio telescopes such as the GBT and
the EVLA. This will have a strong positive impact on the user
community, and particularly on the younger generation.
Our priorities for the allocation of the funds available for
grants in support of research with NRAO telescopes favor students.
Support for a graduate student doing a Ph. D. project is one
very high priority (typically $20K/year for two years), summer support
for undergraduate and first and second year graduate students
(typically $3K to $5K) is also a high priority. Other appropriate
uses for these funds to help the user community include support for
post-docs and partial salary support for professors, e.g. summer
salary or sabbatical leave support for temporary residence at
NRAO sites. All these possibilities were discussed at the meeting,
and they all were welcomed by the users. We recognize that the
grants program will evolve as experience is gained in the most
effective use of the funds available, and we hope that some
initial grants can be offered over the coming year.
One general suggestion which we make is to keep the
funding application and selection process as simple and brief
as possible. The scientific justification for the project is already
presented in the observing proposal. Thus an additional one or
two page budget with explanation should be all that is needed from
the applicant. Since observing proposals are already subjected to an
intense review and ranking process prior to telescope scheduling, it
should be possible to use these reviews to make the funding decisions
E2E, COBRA, Data Processing, Archiving
A sketchy plan for "end-to-end" data processing (E2E) was
presented at the meeting. While we greatly appreciate many of
the goals of the E2E program, at the same time we are concerned
that a loosely-defined, do-everything-at-once program will end up being a
much bigger drain on resources, and much more complex to
implement, than the Observatory expects.
Some highlights related to E2E include:
- The Observatory's involvement in a potential National Virtual
Observatory and its efforts to obtain funding for a common
radio archive (COBRA). We strongly support the development
of a user-friendly, publicly-accessible, web-based archive
system, with data products available in final form (e.g., images),
or with on-line processing tools available to quickly convert
raw data (visibilities or whatever) into images, with minimal
user input. Given the nature of radio data, this will be
an extremely ambitions undertaking, but the rewards will also
With talk of such a grandiose archive project, it may be
tempting to avoid dealing with other, shorter-term archive
needs. Independent of COBRA, NVO, etc., we urge that
- The VLA archive should be made available on-line. While
archival VLA data are accessible, there is a multi-day delay
while the request is approved by the NRAO administration, the
data are put on tape, and the tapes are shipped to the
Observer. Putting the archive on line will entail some effort
moving data from tape to disk, but this will have to be done
sooner or later, anyway.
- An archive needs to be developed for the GBT, quickly.
Apparently there is no plan for archiving GBT data,
other than writing data files to tape from time to time. Given
the immensely complex nature of GBT data -- for example, correlator
kept in one set of files, while information
about where the telescope was pointed during an observation are kept
in a completely independent set of files -- the lack of a
well-organized archive could quickly lead to chaos.
- Integrated datataking and analysis with the VLA. A smoother
process, from preparation of the
observe files and calibrator lists, through the data taking,
calibration, mapping, and deconvolution to final visualization,
would be helpful to everyone from novices (who otherwise
might avoid the VLA altogether) to experienced users (who would
be able to observe more efficiently.) Such a process would naturally
lead to more consistent final data products, simplifying the
production of a user-friendly data archive.
Of course, relatively automated observing and the desire for
relatively uniform data sets must never preclude observers from
doing novel or non-standard observations for good technical
or scientific reasons. A hallmark of radio astronomy has been
hands-on manipulation of data and instruments by observers, and
that must not be allowed to go away.
- Coordination of computer software and hardware standards
throughout the Observatory should increase efficiency.
One suggestion from the Committee regarding the E2E effort is that
a prioritized list of short term goals should be prepared and
circulated. We would like to see the operations of this new
NRAO division kept as accessible and as user-friendly as possible.
Working closely with users at every stage will help make the
products of this initiative more quickly accepted and widely used.
(Surprisingly, many members of the committee had not previously
heard of the COBRA proposal, despite the fact that it would be
a major undertaking of the Observatory. Efforts such as the
COBRA proposal should be more widely publicized within the user
While we are encouraged by continued progress with AIPS++,
especially for processing single dish data, NRAO must realize that
AIPS++ will never be widely adopted by the user community until it is
the program of choice for NRAO staff for processing array data. We
laud the "testers program" now in place at the AOC. The current
testers have clearly made significant progress (although it is
sobering to hear how many bugs have turned up). The tester program
should be expanded such that all NRAO staff scientists cycle through the
program and play a major role in debugging the system. Once
AIPS++ reaches a level of usability such that the testers adopt it
rather than returning to regular AIPS as soon as possible, users will
begin to try AIPS++ itself. As a committee contribution toward "good
citizenship" committee members have vowed to actually try AIPS++
during the upcoming year.
The committee has been an advocate for rapid distribution of
AIPS++. However, there must be a balance between resources allocated
toward debugging and toward getting the program out. Distributing a
buggy program can cause considerable harm.
We appreciated the comments made by testers and other AOC users of
AIPS++. Indeed from the users viewpoint, such comments are more
valuable than presentations by members of the AIPS++ group. Next year,
we would welcome a presentation from AOC AIPS++ users to a closed
session of the committee.
Needless to say, regular AIPS must be maintained at its current level
and augmented as necessary. The staff involved in this continue doing a
commendable job. In particular, the AIPS installer has been well
received by the users.
It was reported that for the Feb 2001 deadline, 125 VLA proposals, 57
VLBA proposals, and 11 Global proposals were received, and all but six
were submitted electronically. The committee was then asked whether
there was any objection to accepting only electronic submissions.
In the eyes of the committee, it appears that electronic submission is
already widely adopted, with few exceptions. The only questions at
this point are 1) is it acceptable to explicitly forbid paper
submission, and 2) should electronic submission be done via a web
form, TeX formatted files that are emailed, or some other process.
The latter question is more related to the End to End Initiative (e2e)
and will be discussed more there.
As for electronic-only submission, at this point, our
attitude is one of "If it isn't broke, don't fix it...". While we are
aware that handling of paper submissions is more time consuming, the
extremely low volume of paper submissions does not warrant
their exclusion. We note that one reason some feel compelled to submit
paper proposals -- the use of color figures -- could be alleviated to
some extent by the Observatory agreeing to print and distribute
proposals in color when requested.
The past year has been something of a roller coaster ride with
the on-again, off-again possibility that a major source of radio
frequency interference (RFI), the Iridium constellation, would be
de-orbited. Even in the absence of Iridium, though, passive
services like radio astronomy are facing increasingly complex
environments. This problem is particularly severe for radio
astronomers given the general faintness of the radio Universe and
the increasing demand for larger frequency coverage and broader
Against this backdrop we were heartened to hear of a number of positive steps
occurring in the Observatory:
With the continued expansion of radio instrument sensitivities
into the higher frequency areas, special attention should be paid
to potential sources of RFI in these regions. This is especially
true for potential short-range radio signals from automobile
collision avoidance systems and other developing
technologies. The Observatory should begin now to worry
about preservation of the radio sky at the higher
frequencies. The recent agreements at the WRC in Istanbul are an
excellent start on the long-term job of preserving the higher
frequencies for scientific use.
The NSF MRI award to Rick Fisher was a welcome announcement. Given the NSF's
substantial investment in ground-based radio astronomy facilities,
this award represents an excellent insurance policy toward maintaining
these facilities at the leading edge of astronomy. We were
however, sobered to hear the excellent presentation on the
challenging RFI environment at Green Bank given by Rick Fisher.
We applaud the Observatory's membership in the International Dark-sky
Association. The IDA has had a number of successes in maintaining or
improving dark skies, and we hope the Observatory's membership will
assist them in maintaining dark skies at all wavelengths.
We are glad to hear that a senior engineer/manager position is being
advertised to coordinate all spectrum management work in Green Bank
and that adequate financial resources are finally becoming available.
Mark McKinnon had been performing many of these tasks. We thank him
for his work in this area and hope that an equally capable replacement
can be found quickly. We are also glad to hear that this position's
responsibilities will include mitigation of locally-generated RFI.
We are glad to hear that Darrel Emerson is serving on CORF.
We think that it is important that the Observatory continue much of
the work started by Dick Thompson. It is also important for the
Observatory to maintain a presence on or in front of the relevant
domestic and international organizations and/or make
presentations regarding RFI to those bodies they cannot participate
in as a member. Coordination with other observatories regarding RFI
is of the utmost importance. It should be remembered that without
usable portions of the radio spectrum, radio astronomy will become a
thing of the past.
Working with the IDA and/or American Astronomical Society's Committee
on Light Pollution, Interference, and Space Debris, we recommend that
the Observatory produce an outreach or public relations product
describing RFI and its impact on astronomy.
Particularly useful would be material that faculty members could work
into their courses and a sheet of "talking points" (similar to what
the IDA already produces for the optical night sky).
While it may be self-evident, we recommend that the EVLA produce
significantly less RFI than the VLA does currently.
Education and Public Outreach (EPO)
We are pleased with progress made in a number of EPO
areas in the last year:
We were disappointed, however, to receive no written report
on EPO prior to the meeting. We received no response to the many
detailed suggestions we made last year. We realize that this is
partly because a search is going on to hire a new EPO staff person,
and we hope this person can take charge of Observatory-wide EPO soon.
- the new blue brochures for each telescope are attractive,
professional, and informative
- the increased presence at AAS meetings provides important outreach
to the community
- the new Green Bank visitor's center will be an extremely useful
facility, and we applaud NRAO on its ambitious design and on obtaining
- the continued frequent press releases are important for increasing
visibility with the public. We learned during the meeting that the
VLA generates the most publications per year of any telescope except
HST, and these results need to be publicized!
- as always, hands-on programs for teachers at the Green Bank
site are a spectacular example of educational outreach.
We are also very pleased to see the emphasis on EPO in the Long Range
Plan, where it is one of four major goals for the next few years. The
new VLA Visitor Center and Education Program is desperately needed,
and we look forward to seeing a more detailed plan for this in the
Recommendation: As part of the long range plan, be sure to include an
EPO component in the planning and budgeting stages for each major new
instrument (EVLA, ALMA, etc.), similar to the EPO component of
every NASA mission.
Finally, we're glad to hear of your plans for a meeting in September
2001 to plan an Observatory-wide detailed strategy for EPO, and
encourage you to solicit comment from the user community (via AAS
email exploder, etc.) while making these plans. Below is a
prioritized list of the EPO initiatives we feel are important in the
short term and the long term. Comments on another EPO-related
issue, the NRAO web site, are given in an appendix.
PRIORITIZED LIST OF EPO INITIATIVES
(Users Committee Member C. De Pree will attend the September 13-14 EPO
Meeting in Green Bank, WV)
Critical/Short Term Needs (in order of importance)
Long Term Needs
- Hire a full time EPO Coordinator at the AD level (if possible) to
direct EPO at all NRAO sites. This area is in need of committed,
long term leadership to organize the substantial but undirected
efforts of the individual sites
- Unveil a Public Image Archive, well organized, accessible, and
professional-looking. Call it something like RadioSky.edu (to
complement RadioSky.com, the amateur radio astronomy site)
- A possible starting point: Radio/Optical Messier catalog (see
specific comments on image archive)
- This site needs a unified presentation and professional look
(possibly matched in terms of design to brochures)
- Short Captions should be provided, and the name(s) of the
- Web Page Improvements-see detailed comments in appendix
- Early split (Professional/Public) on the first page
- Better organization of materials for astronomers
- Public pages should be re-organized (see specific comments on WWW)
- Update exhibits at the current VLA visitor center, as a transition
to a new visitor center in the long term. Also, start staffing the
visitors center full time (perhaps this same person could fill WWW
orders for NRAO T-shirts, hats and the like).
- Have NRAO astronomers make Powerpoint presentations available on
the web for astronomers giving EPO talks
- Outreach to College/Post-graduate students
- The Post-Doc program seems to be in good shape. This is an
important form of "outreach" to the community, and post-docs
should be kept as diverse as possible in terms of their
- The Pre-Doc program has always been more informal, and could
perhaps be "formalized". The NRAO might be able to investigate a
competitive Pre-Doc program that would support graduate students
in their first two years of study, and one requirement of the
scholarship could be residence/study at an NRAO site for two
summers. If the NRAO summer school meets every other year, these
scholars would attend that summer school as part of their
- The NRAO summer internships for undergraduates has been
incredibly successful and has generated many future radio
astronomers. Perhaps someone within the organization could do
statistics on the "success rate" of summer school students and a
listing of publications that have come from summer projects
- The formalization of the student observations with the VLA
should be publicized in the newsletter and on the WWW site
- Radio Astronomy Brochures (available via mail and in PDF format on
- RFI Brochure should be made available. Could be borrowed from
the IDSA site or generated internally
- "White Papers" (see Users Committee 2000 report). These could be
written by research astronomers, and then edited and given a
common "look" by NRAO staff. Could include a brief biography of
- Individual Site Initiatives for EPO
- VLA visitors center similar to GBT is badly needed. Small radio
telescope for visitors to operate is a great idea. Would allow
a comprehensive program to reach all NM school children.
- Exhibits could be developed with the intention to duplicate them
at various NRAO sites and have one spare display on traveling
tour to small planetariums around the country
- Programs for K-12 teachers. All sites should offer services to
these ages. GB seems to have the most organized efforts on this
front. Should be expanded to other sites.
Apendix: A Critique of the NRAO Website
Overall, the NRAO website contains good information for the general
public to consume. However, the largest fault of the website is that
it lacks good organization of the content. For members of the general
public, it is not clear what information can be retrieved from the
site or where to look. As a user, one wants to access valuable
information quickly. Currently, the NRAO site does not support this
goal for the general public.
The NRAO has good coverage on the Internet based on search engine
results for "radio astronomy". When surveying four popular search engines
for "radio astronomy", the NRAO website was listed within the top two
selections on three of the sites and was 6th in the remaining site.
The NRAO has much less coverage on the Internet based on search
results for "astronomy" 3 of the 4 sites did not list the NRAO at all.
On the remaining site, NRAO was 3rd on the list. Recommendation: the
NRAO should enlist itself with the major search engines based on a
wider set of search criteria to include "astronomy".
The site name, www.nrao.edu, is not an easy site name to remember,
especially for those unfamiliar with radio astronomy organizations.
It is recommended that site names mean something to the user. For
instance, other astronomy website names that are hard to forget
include "radiosky.com" and "signalone.com". Recommendation: the NRAO
may want to consider developing a separate website for public outreach
and assign a name that is easy to remember and more meaningful to the
NRAO Home Page:
The home page has a very pleasing appearance with low clutter and
clearly identified alternatives to select. However, as a member of
the general public, where should one go? What information is
available on this site that is relevant to the general public? Where
is the introductory material on radio astronomy? It is clear that the
home page is servicing a wide-range of audiences. It appears that the
site is servicing at least five users groups including: professional
astronomers, students looking for a job, NRAO staff, educators, and
the general public. It is acceptable and often necessary for a website
to service several audiences but good websites provide clear
instruction and meaningful tag names to guide each user audience to
the correct pieces of information. (Note: This first requires the
NRAO to clearly understand what types of information each user group
wants to obtain from the site.) For instance, the names of the
selection options are not meaningful to the general user. Education:
What is Education? Does that imply that you should select this if you
want to get educated or because you are an educator? Library: Library
of what? Will I find pretty astronomy pictures here? In addition,
the selections are not grouped based on user group. As a general
user, there is no need to access "Engineering" (it is not clear what
Engineering is for) but "Engineering" is listed between Education and
Library - two selection that a member of the general public will most
likely make. Recommendation: The NRAO should first clearly identify
the user groups it is targeting with its website. The NRAO should ask
each user group what types of information they want to see on the
site. Once those audiences have been identified and relevant
information defined, the Home Page should then be designed to target
each user group and to provide a clear information flow leading each
group to the information relevant to them. The NRAO does this more
effectively on the Very Large Baseline Array site as the various user
groups are listed by name on the home page (www.aoc.nrao.edu/vlba).
The goal is to get people to the information they are seeking as
quickly as possible. The fewer clicks the better.
Beyond the Home Page:
As a general user, "About NRAO" is most likely the first area selected.
The content is good but it gets quickly confusing again by the additional
information provided via the new selections. Only 6 of the 10 selections
clearly apply to the general public. One has to search through the other
selections to see if there is anything of interest behind those
selections. The same experience is reached when accessing "Education".
There is information there that applies to the general public as well as
to educators. Good websites never mix information for one user group with
information designed for another group. This is a suggestion for a design
of the page that is relevant to the General Public, as follows:
Intro to Radio Astronomy (currently under "About NRAO")
Early Radio Astronomy (currently under "Education")
Radio Astronomy Fundamentals (currently under "Education")
Value of Astronomy (currently under "About NRAO")
Visitors Center (currently under "About NRAO")
Radio Image Gallery (currently under "Education")
Image Gallery (currently under "About NRAO")
Note: Why are the two image galleries different? In addition, place a
link to the image galleries on the Home Page as this, in is the
biggest draw for the general public.
Recommendation: redesign the site based on the needs of the user. Ask
the general public what types of information they would like to see
and build the content and the site around that. Perhaps NRAO should
consider getting a consulting firm to do their website for the general
Navigation on the site is not bad but it could use some improvement.
The user must often use the "back" button to return to a previous
page. It is better website format to always have a table of contents
visible so the user can easily navigate between sections of the
website. The Association for Radio Astronomy in Education website,
provides an example of great navigation.
Build an image gallery with more astronomical objects,
descriptions, links to websites in optical wavelength, then
explain why Radio astronomical images should be integrated to
optical images (e.g. What the constellation looks like) even if
there is nothing to see in optical wavelengths (e.g
Hubble/AAT/VLA images of the same object, see
http://spaceimages.northwestern.edu). It does not make sense
to have the M87 image by itself separated from galactic and
extragalactic categories for VLA and VLBA images. VLA is the HST
of optical astronomy. Digitized VLA images should be very useful
and easily accessible for the general public. Check http://www.aao.gov.au under
images. Check also http://www.eso.org/outreasch/info-events/ut1fl/astroim-bebular.html
for clarity and the organization of astronomical images.
Suggestion: Add a radio Messier catalog or radio counterpart to
some of HST images. It would have the following benefits:
- limited scope
- emphasis on the relationship to optical images (show side by side)
- certainly reasonably good observations exist of these objects
- could be proof of concept for layout, etc.
NRAO should pay for page charges only if authors provide their radio
astronomical images for public consumption (exceptions can be made
for a delay in submitting radio images).
Use more animation in the VLA website (how the VLA site looks like
from different angles). Should consider receiving proposals for
public outreach from astronomers who have received observing time from
GB (similar to what HST does).
Users Committee 2001
Rachel L. Akeson, Caltech, IPAC
David Boboltz, U.S. Naval Observatory
Steven B. Charnley, NASA/Ames Research Center
Christopher G. De Pree, Agnes Scott College
John M. Dickey, University of Minnesota
Jason Glenn, University of Colorado
Lincoln J. Greenhill, Center for Astrophysics
Mark Gurwell, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
Deborah B. Haarsma, Calvin College
Paul T. P. Ho, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
Victoria M. Kaspi, McGill University
T. Joseph W. Lazio, Naval Research Laboratory
Colin Lonsdale, MIT Haystack Observatory
Kevin B. Marvel, American Astronomical Society
David J. Nice, Princeton University
Robert T. Rood, University of Virginia
Evan Skillman, University of Minnesota
Thomas H. Troland, University of Kentucky
Stephen M. White, University of Maryland
Eric M. Wilcots, University of Wisconsin
Christine Wilson, McMaster University
Min Yun, University of Massachusetts
Farhad Yusef Zadeh, Northwestern University