Key Science Programs

Note: The information here was posted in July 2018 as an invitation for community-based development of Key Science Program concepts for the US ELT Program. This particular activity concluded in early 2019 and the registration form was closed, although additional, future community activities related to the US-ELTP are anticipated. Some of the information presented here is no longer current, but other information is useful and relevant, so the page will remain active but is not being kept up to date. Because this exercise took place in 2018-2019, references to NOAO have not been updated to NOIRLab.

Invitation to participate in development of Key Science Program concepts for GMT and TMT (July 2018)

The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) and its collaborative partners, the Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory (TIO) and the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization (GMTO) invite all interested U.S. scientists to participate in the development of Key Science Programs (KSP) concepts for the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) and Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), preferably working in concert.

The primary audiences for these KSPs will be the 2020 Decadal Survey of Astronomy and Astrophysics (Astro 2020), an enterprise of the U.S. National Academies, and the NSF. They may also be used, in whole or part, to support a future collaborative proposal by NOAO, GMTO, and TIO to NSF for a significant investment in the TMT and GMT construction projects and operations in order to enable open access for the entire U.S. commmunity to observing time via peer review. For both audiences, a strong response to this invitation will be seen as an indicator of community interest in potential federal investment in GMT and TMT. We need your help!

NOAO, TIO, and GMTO are committed to enabling diversity within KSP development teams. We seek to empower the best minds, no matter their gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or institutional affiliation.

Scientists interested in participation in KSP development are kindly requested to fill out the on-line registration form linked below.

KSP development team formation will begin on 30 July.

Revision History

Date Remarks
06 Jul 2018 Original release
2 Aug 2018 Linked to latest GMT and TMT science cases and observatory information




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 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 public 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.

Our immediate task is scientific advocacy focused on the development and presentation of concepts for Key Science Programs (KSPs) by community-based development teams. Smaller-scale, focused discovery research programs will certainly be an important component of the overall TMT and GMT science programs, as richly illustrated by the existing detailed science cases available from GMTO and TIO. However, the present effort is directed solely towards the development of larger-scale concepts focused on frontier research programs led by U.S community scientists that can achieve exceptional advancements in humanity’s understanding of the cosmos.

Our audiences are the U.S. research community as represented by the upcoming Decadal Survey of Astronomy and Astrophysics (Astro 2020, an enterprise of the U.S. National Academies) and the National Science Foundation.

Successful implementation of a U.S. ELT Program will ultimately depend on a showing of strong support from the U.S. community through the KSP development process, the Decadal Survey process and a favorable outcome at the National Science Foundation. We need your help!



Key Science Programs (KSPs) are envisioned to be open collaborations that gather observers, theorists, and data scientists together to exploit significant investments of TMT and GMT observing time, from tens to hundreds of nights, focused on major research areas including the dark universe, first stars & first galaxies, exoplanet atmospheres, planets, satellites and small bodies throughout Solar System, and/or other topics as deemed worthy by the community.

By analogy, U.S. ELT KSPs are imagined to be similar in nature to such recent or current collaborative projects as the Dark Energy Survey (DES), the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI), and the various survey teams within Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) III, IV, and V. Similar to those examples, some KSPs may propose the delivery of science capability additions and/or enhancements (e.g., new instruments, data systems) as part of their concept, although that is certainly not required, given the powerful suite of instruments already planned by GMT and TMT.

To illustrate the exciting opportunities provided by KSPs, NOAO will work with community-based teams to develop KSP concepts for presentation to the Decadal Survey and NSF as part of a broader description of a U.S. ELT Program. Although some of the actual KSP collaborations of the future are expected to be international in nature, participation in this NOAO-organized process to develop KSPs will be limited to scientists at U.S.-based institutions. The KSP concepts developed in the next 6 - 12 months may or may not be the ultimate KSPs executed in the future. However, they are essential components in building the science case for federal investment in these observatories.

Naturally, astronomy and astrophysics will continue to evolve rapidly during construction of GMT and TMT, thanks to previous and on-going 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). Consequently, actual KSPs executed in the future will be proposed and selected by peer-review at various times (to be determined) before and during GMT and TMT science operations.

General characteristics

Each KSP must be motivated by questions of fundamental scientific importance (e.g., the nature of the earliest stars and galaxies in the universe, dark universe, and exoplanets), focus on a well-posed observing program, and clearly describe the required measurements.

A KSP may encompass a single, integrated observing project (e.g., a survey) using TMT and/or GMT, or may consist of multiple observing programs linked by an overarching science objective.

To better motivate U.S. federal investment in an U.S. ELT system of two observatories, NOAO, TIO, and GMTO are particularly interested in KSPs in one or more of these categories:

  • Utilization of both observatories in a scientifically integrative manner. Example integrative characteristics include all-sky samples of rare and/or critical objects, complementary use of GMT and TMT instrumentation, and complementary research with other facilities in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres;
  • Support of the NSF Multi-Messenger Astronomy (MMA) theme. Seek to enable more complete understanding of cosmic phenomena through the coordinated analysis of information obtained through the detection of electromagnetic radiation, gravitational waves, and particles (e.g., neutrinos, cosmic rays, and WIMPs). This may also fit into the category above where events are rare enough that you want data on every one over the entire sky or there is a short window of time in which to make observations and having the ability to simultaneously observe with different instruments is critical;
  • Coordination with other U.S.-funded research facilities, in space or on the ground (e.g., synergistic research using a combination of current or future DOE, NSF, or NASA funded capabilities)

Development teams

NOAO, TIO, and GMTO are committed to enabling diversity within KSP development teams. We seek to empower the best minds, no matter their gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or institutional affiliation.

To advocate for a U.S. ELT Program in the context of Astro 2020, KSP concepts will be developed by community-based teams with technical support from NOAO, TIO, and GMTO. As discussed below, these teams will either be assembled by NOAO from the pool of scientists who respond to this invitation or they will self-organize. The main deliverable of these teams will be KSP Description Documents (KDDs), to be presented and discussed at a workshop to be held in Tucson in late October or early November 2018.

Only scientists associated with U.S.-based institutions (including U.S-based TMT and GMT partner institutions) are invited to participate in the development of KSP concepts. Scientific input to the Decadal Survey must strongly demonstrate U.S. community interest and leadership in ELT-enabled science. For this reason, participation in the current development of KSP concepts is limited to scientists at U.S.-based institutions, although actual, future KSPs may be international in nature.

Just as the KSP concepts developed during this phase may or may not be the KSPs ultimately executed using GMT and TMT, development teams assembled during this phase are not expected or required to be the actual collaborations formed during TMT and GMT operations.

NOAO-enabled teams

These teams will consist of all U.S. community scientists who fill out the on-line registration form linked above.

Working with the U.S. ELT Program Advisory Committee (AC), NOAO will build KSP development teams in general science areas. NOAO will invite someone from each team to be the team leader during this development phase. Each team will be requested to develop one or more KSP concepts within their science area. Funding will be available to defray all travel expenses related to KSP development and presentation.

Team formation is expected to be begin on 30 July.

Independent teams

These teams will self-organize to develop KSP concepts consistent with the general characteristics described above. To be invited to the October 2018 workshop described below, team leaders should contact NOAO and provide the following information no later than 31 August 2018.

  • Group Leader(s)
  • Group Members (including institutions, U.S. States)
  • General scientific area
  • KSP concept (abstract, 300 words or less)

Independent teams are strongly encouraged to build diverse membership rosters.

KSP description documents (KDD)

Each KSP development team will be asked to deliver one or more initial KSP description documents (KDDs) by 22 October 2018.

By design, KDDs will be similar to concise observing proposals. Each KDD will contain a science justification as well as an experimental design. The exact KDD format has not yet been finalized.

Science justification

KSPs are expected to address major scientific challenges that require tens to hundreds of observing nights over several years. Therefore, strong science justifications are required.

Expected information includes:

  • General scientific overview
  • Specific research question(s) to be addressed by this KSP
  • Specific measurements needed
Experimental design
Detailed Science Cases GMT TMT
Observatory information GMT TMT

KDDs must describe how the current as-designed GMT and TMT observatories (including their planned instrument suites or potential new capabilities) can be used to achieve the specific measurements described in the science justification.

KSP teams are allowed to propose:

  • New capabilities, either as small modifications to planned instruments or as new instruments;
  • Advancing schedule for development and deployment of early-generation capabilities.

More specifically, the experimental design should include:

  • Instrument needs (based on current plans or new concepts)
  • Target/sample selection concept
  • Scheduling requirements, including lunar phase, observing cadence (if relevant) and timing constraints (if relevant)
  • Observing time required on GMT and/or TMT, with detailed justification
    • Tens to hundreds of nights (or equivalent) of TMT/GMT observing time may be required, over several years;
  • Where appropriate, simulations needed to interpret the data
  • Where appropriate, specific scientific data analysis plans
  • Description of potential data products and their value to a broader research community
  • Additional technical assets (observational, computational) that may be required

Development roadmap

As stated above, KSPs developed during this period are examples. If community access to GMT and TMT becomes available in the future, actual KSPs will be selected via competitive peer review through an NSF-approved process that respects policies established by the GMTO and TIO governance boards.

Development team formation

Initial NOAO-sponsored KSP development teams will begin on 30 July. As appropriate, scientists who respond after 30 July will be assigned to existing teams and/or new teams will be formed.

Initial work period (Aug – Oct 2018)

During this period, NOAO will help KSP development teams organize themselves and start working on initial development of one or more KSP descriptions. Each development team will be requested to submit an initial KSP description document (KDD) (exact format to be decided later) to NOAO no later than 22 October 2018 and then present their concept at the workshop.

KSP development workshop (late October or early November 2018)

Representatives of all registered KSP development teams will be invited to a workshop in Tucson during the weeks of 29 October or 5 November. This meeting will be focused on cross-cutting discussion of KSP concepts, mixed with unstructured periods for development team work. Scientific and technical experts from TIO and GMTO will be available for consultation.

Shortly after the workshop, NOAO will work with the US-ELTP AC to choose a subset of KSPs, spanning a range of subject areas and capability usages, for further development as part of U.S. ELT Program presentation materials for Astro 2020. For KSPs that are not selected in this manner, their teams will be strongly encouraged to develop and submit Astro 2020 white papers on their own.

Pre-AAS work period (Nov – Dec 2018)

During this period, NOAO (with assistance from GMTO and TIO) will work with a small number of KSP development teams to refine their KSP concepts for inclusion in a broader U.S. ELT Program package to be presented to Astro 2020 (and later, NSF). These teams will have two assignments:

  1. Developing concise (10 minute) presentations for a science session at the January 2019 AAS meeting.
  2. Developing science white papers for Astro 2020 (examples from Astro 2010)
AAS meeting (January 2019)

Working in concert, NOAO, TIO, and GMTO are planning two activities at the January 2019 AAS meeting in Seattle:

  1. Science meeting (Splinter Session, open), organized by NOAO
    1. Open to all AAS meeting attendees
    2. Agenda concept (90 – 120 minutes, max)
    3. U.S. ELT Program presentation
    4. GMT/TMT status reports
    5. KSP presentations
    6. Panel discussion
  2. Open house (evening), sponsored by GMTO and TIO
    1. Social & networking event for general community
Astro 2020 white papers (Feb 2019)

Each KSP development team will be encouraged to submit a science white paper to Astro 2020. Based on past experience, these white papers will in essence be condensed versions of the KDD science justifications, connected to the broader astronomical landscape.

At the time of this writing, the Astro 2020 schedule of deadlines has not yet been announced. For planning purposes, NOAO is assuming science white papers will be submitted no sooner than 15 February 2019. Consequently, all KSP-related science white papers should be completed by 1 February 2019 to allow time for last minute refinement.


This section does not apply to the development of example KSPs during 2018 and 2019.

To foster the broadest possible participation in these forefront research projects, NOAO will propose to Astro 2020 and the NSF that open collaboration models will be implemented for all KSP teams that are ultimately awarded GMT and TMT observing time as part of the envisioned NSF-sponsored U.S. ELT Program.

As defined by the organizers of the International Symposium on Open Collaboration (OpenSym), open collaborations are:

  • Egalitarian (everyone can join, no principled or artificial barriers to participation exist),
  • Meritocratic (decisions and status are merit-based rather than imposed) and
  • Self-organizing (processes adapt to people rather than people adapt to pre-defined processes).

Therefore, NOAO will propose that KSP collaborations during actual TMT and GMT science operations should:

  • Be open to all U.S.-based scientists, including from TMT and GMT partner institutions
  • Be open to foreign scientists affiliated with GMT and TMT partners
  • Have governance models that value diversity & inclusion, elected leaders, mentoring & encouragement of early career scientists, etc.
  • Encompass the scientific and technical expertise needed to accomplish their science mission

During actual GMT and TMT operations, KSP teams will be assigned NOAO, TMT and/or GMT liaisons as appropriate.

The details of this concept and its application to U.S. ELT KSPs will be developed further by NOAO in the months ahead in consultation with NSF, the U.S ELT Program Advisory Committee, and the community-at-large.


Date Remarks
09 Jul 2018 Release, Invitation to Participate (this document)
30 Jul 2018 Formation of KSP development teams begins
22 Oct 2018 Initial KSP Description Documents submitted to NOAO
31 Oct 2018 KSP Development Workshop (Tucson) (exact date TBC)
08 Jan 2019 KSP presentations @ AAS Meeting (Seattle)
11 Mar 2019 Astro2020 Science White Papers due


For further information, please contact Mark Dickinson.

Update: 15 July 2019

Updated on April 18, 2024, 7:02 am