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21 May 2018
U.S. national observatory and two extremely large telescope projects team up to enhance U.S. scientific leadership in astronomy and astrophysics
A new research frontier in astronomy and astrophysics will open in the mid-2020s with the advent of ground-based extremely large optical-infrared telescopes (ELTs) with primary mirrors in the 20-m – 40-m range. U.S. scientific leadership in astronomy and astrophysics will be significantly enhanced if the broad U.S. community can take advantage of the power of these new ELTs.
In that context, the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization (GMTO), and the Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory (TIO) have embarked on the development of a U.S. Extremely Large Telescope (US-ELT) Program.
Our shared mission is to strengthen scientific leadership by the U.S. community-at-large through access to extremely large telescopes in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. This two-hemisphere model will provide the U.S. science community with greater and more diverse research opportunities than can be achieved with a single telescope, and hence more opportunities for leadership.
Our immediate task is advocacy for frontier research programs led by U.S community scientists that can achieve exceptional advancements in humanity’s understanding of the cosmos.
Our audience is the U.S. research community as represented by the upcoming Decadal Survey of Astronomy and Astrophysics (an enterprise of the U.S. National Academies).
As an essential part of that immediate task, we will work with the U.S. research community to develop exemplar Key Science Programs (KSPs) within major research areas including the dark universe, first stars & first galaxies, exoplanet atmospheres, the surfaces of satellites and other small bodies throughout Solar System, and/or other topics to be proposed and prioritized by community-based working groups.
Key Science Programs are envisioned to be open collaborations that gather observers, theorists, and data scientists together to exploit significant investments of Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) and Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) observing time, from tens to hundreds of nights.

TMT-Thirty Meter Telescope, proposed and now approved for Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA4,207 m (13,802 ft) above sea level

Giant Magellan Telescope, to be at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Las Campanas Observatory, to be built some 115 km (71 mi) north-northeast of La Serena, Chile, over 2,500 m (8,200 ft) high

Some of these collaborations are expected to be international in nature. If well-justified by KSP plans, we envisage that at least 25% of the observing time at each international observatory will be available for the U.S. community.
The KSPs chosen for presentation to the Decadal Survey will not be the final programs. Astronomy and astrophysics will continue to evolve rapidly during construction of GMT and TMT, thanks to previous investments in ground– and space-based observatories, such as the NASA Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), the NASA James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). Actual KSPs will be selected by peer-review before the start of GMT and TMT science operations.


NASA/ESA/CSA Webb Telescope annotated


LSST Camera, built at SLAC

LSST telescope, currently under construction on the El Peñón peak at Cerro Pachón Chile, a 2,682-meter-high mountain in Coquimbo Region, in northern Chile, alongside the existing Gemini South and Southern Astrophysical Research Telescopes.

NOAO, TIO, and GMTO are committed to enabling diversity within KSP collaborations. We seek to empower the best minds, no matter their gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or institutional affiliation.
More information about the U.S. ELT Program and how community scientists can join KSP development groups will be available after mid-June 2018.
Issued by the National Science Foundation’s National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), with concurrence of the Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory (TIO) and Giant Magellan Telescope Organization (GMTO)
CONTACT: Dr. David Silva, Director, NOAO,


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NOAO is the US national research & development center for ground-based night time astronomy. In particular, NOAO is enabling the development of the US optical-infrared (O/IR) System, an alliance of public and private observatories allied for excellence in scientific research, education and public outreach.

Our core mission is to provide public access to qualified professional researchers via peer-review to forefront scientific capabilities on telescopes operated by NOAO as well as other telescopes throughout the O/IR System. Today, these telescopes range in aperture size from 2-m to 10-m. NOAO is participating in the development of telescopes with aperture sizes of 20-m and larger as well as a unique 8-m telescope that will make a 10-year movie of the Southern sky.

In support of this mission, NOAO is engaged in programs to develop the next generation of telescopes, instruments, and software tools necessary to enable exploration and investigation through the observable Universe, from planets orbiting other stars to the most distant galaxies in the Universe.

To communicate the excitement of such world-class scientific research and technology development, NOAO has developed a nationally recognized Education and Public Outreach program. The main goals of the NOAO EPO program are to inspire young people to become explorers in science and research-based technology, and to reach out to groups and individuals who have been historically under-represented in the physics and astronomy science enterprise.

The National Optical Astronomy Observatory is proud to be a US National Node in the International Year of Astronomy, 2009.

About Our Observatories:
Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO)

Kitt Peak

Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) has its headquarters in Tucson and operates the Mayall 4-meter, the 3.5-meter WIYN , the 2.1-meter and Coudé Feed, and the 0.9-meter telescopes on Kitt Peak Mountain, about 55 miles southwest of the city.

Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO)

NOAO Cerro Tolo

The Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) is located in northern Chile. CTIO operates the 4-meter, 1.5-meter, 0.9-meter, and Curtis Schmidt telescopes at this site.

The NOAO System Science Center (NSSC)

Gemini North
Gemini North

Gemini South telescope
Gemini South

The NOAO System Science Center (NSSC) at NOAO is the gateway for the U.S. astronomical community to the International Gemini Project: twin 8.1 meter telescopes in Hawaii and Chile that provide unprecendented coverage (northern and southern skies) and details of our universe.

NOAO is managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy under a Cooperative Agreement with the National Science Foundation.