On Monday, July 11, 2005, the ALMA project achieved a major milestone as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Associated Universities, Incorporated (AUI) announced that AUI had signed a contract with Vertex Communications Corporation to purchase North America’s share of the array’s antennas. This contract provides for the purchase of 25 antennas, with options for up to 32 antennas. This milestone was achieved as a result of a long and careful procurement process which included extensive coordination with North America’s European partner, the European Southern Observatory (ESO), and with the Joint ALMA Office, which is overseeing construction of the array. NSF’s approval followed the recommendation of the ALMA Director and the unanimous concurrence of the ALMA Board, the oversight body for ALMA. This important decision affirms NSF’s commitment to this transformational international facility, and its confidence in the ALMA team and partnership. At its June 2005 meeting, the ESO Council reaffirmed its commitment to ALMA, and ESO is working to complete its parallel antenna procurement process as soon as possible. ALMA will be a remarkable international facility that, when completed, will be 100 times more powerful than the present facilities at millimeter and sub-millimeter wavelengths.
Immediately after the January 2006 American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington D.C., the North American ALMA Science Center (NAASC) will host a workshop titled From z-Machines to ALMA: (Sub)Millimeter Spectroscopy of Galaxies. In the last decade, deep imaging from infrared through radio wavelengths has revealed important populations of distant, dusty galaxies with high rates of star formation and/or accretion. Multiple efforts are now underway to build dedicated, wide-bandwidth instruments, so-called “z-Machines,” that can directly determine molecular emission-line redshifts for sources too obscured to be easily studied at optical or infrared wavelengths. With ALMA under construction, it is timely to convene a workshop to: (a) familiarize the astronomical community with the new generation of wide-bandwidth (sub)millimeter spectrometers; (b) highlight the key scientific questions about dusty high-redshift galaxies that can soon be meaningfully addressed; and (c) consider how observing programs can optimize exploitation of ALMA’s unique capabilities on longer timescales. This workshop is being hosted by the North American ALMA Science Center, located at the NRAO headquarters in Charlottesville, Virginia. Additional information can be found by clicking here.
The Senior Review being conducted by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Astronomical Sciences (NSF-AST) is another very important on-going activity. The NRAO submitted its report to the NSF Senior Review on July 31, 2005. The report was carefully prepared by the Observatory's staff with input from a cross-section of the astronomical community, and is available on-line at http://www.nrao.edu. The NSF-AST Senior Review seeks to identify $30M of annual funding within the AST Division that would be reallocated by 2011 to fund the design and development of future high-priority projects such as the Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, and the operation of ALMA. Guided by the Senior Review, the NSF will make important decisions regarding the selective reduction of current federally-funded facilities so that new initiatives can be funded. Community involvement is absolutely crucial to assess whether the proposed changes lead to a vital, sustainable future for astronomy, or whether they demand a pace and scope of change that is too drastic.
The NRAO currently operates a system of complementary centimeter-wavelength radio telescopes — the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, the Very Large Array, the Very Long Baseline Array — and the Central Development Laboratory. In addition to its role in ALMA, the NRAO is building Phase I of the Expanded Very Large Array (EVLA), replacing the VLA by a new facility which has ten times the sensitivity and 1000 times the spectral capability.
In 2011, the NRAO will be the premier radio observatory providing the astronomy community a suite of powerful, complementary telescopes that will form the “radio cornerstone” of a system of world-class international astronomical facilities that span the radio, optical-infrared, X-ray, and gamma-ray wavelength regions. NRAO facilities will enable astronomers to directly observe the formation of stars and planetary systems, the first galaxies and active galactic nuclei, and to address many issues at the frontiers of physics via astronomical observations. The exceptional breadth and depth of the NRAO’s facilities, and the Observatory’s expertise and experience in radio-astronomical science and technology, have taken 50 years to build, resulting in a NRAO that is recognized by many as an essential resource for astronomy in the United States and, indeed, in the world.
A Senior Review of the facilities supported by the NSF - AST is a necessary process to evaluate the costs and benefits of these facilities, and to prioritize spending, especially since worthwhile new projects are awaiting funding. However, care must be taken to avoid irreparable damage to the existing U.S. astronomy infrastructure. The balance between supporting the existing facilities that give U.S. astronomy a competitive advantage and initiating new projects that will maintain that competitive position is a very delicate one.
Finally, the astronomical community has repeatedly demonstrated its strong support for observing programs characterized by broad community interest, immediate and lasting scientific importance, and rapid, non-proprietary data release, i.e., Legacy Science Programs. Based on input and feedback from the Users Committee and the Visiting Committee, NRAO has begun to consider whether and how Legacy Science Programs might be implemented at the Observatory’s existing (VLA, VLBA, GBT) and future research facilities (ALMA, EVLA). Legacy programs have been very successfully implemented at the Hubble Space Telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope, and other observatories. These programs have enabled excellent science and engaged numerous researchers in the astronomical community. The NRAO will be actively soliciting your input about possible Legacy Science Program implementations at the Observatory, in particular, through workshops that will be organized in the next few months.
Please be assured that every action and decision taken by myself and the NRAO management and technical staff seeks to improve the services and science delivered by the Observatory to the astronomical community. The NRAO sees the challenges of the present as necessary steps towards the scientific opportunities of the future. The Observatory’s people are proud of what they have accomplished, and confident of their ability to continue to design, operate, and maintain the facilities demanded by the extraordinary enterprise that is modern astronomy.
K. Y. Lo