National Optical Astronomy Observatory

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National Optical Astronomy Observatory
Alternative namesNOAO OOjs UI icon edit-ltr-progressive.svg
OrganizationNational Science Foundation, AURA
Location Tucson, Pima County, Arizona
Kitt Peak is the National Observatory of the United States, in contrast to the various benefactor and privately funded telescopes. The largest optical telescope at Kitt Peak is the 4 meter aperture Mayall reflector, and the bureaucracy also supports a variety of other instruments throughout the United States and internationally, but not telescopes such as Hubble, supported by NASA (which a different government organization) Kitt Peak (7554295742).jpg
Kitt Peak is the National Observatory of the United States, in contrast to the various benefactor and privately funded telescopes. The largest optical telescope at Kitt Peak is the 4 meter aperture Mayall reflector, and the bureaucracy also supports a variety of other instruments throughout the United States and internationally, but not telescopes such as Hubble, supported by NASA (which a different government organization)
Image of Abell 30 by the 4-meter (158 inch) aperture Mayall telescope, a ground-based optical telescope. Ab30 rgb1.jpg
Image of Abell 30 by the 4-meter (158 inch) aperture Mayall telescope, a ground-based optical telescope.

The National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) was the United States national observatory for ground-based nighttime ultraviolet-optical-infrared (OUVIR) astronomy. The National Science Foundation (NSF) funded NOAO to provide forefront astronomical research facilities for US astronomers. Professional astronomers from any country in the world could apply to use the telescopes operated by NOAO under the NSF's "open skies" policy.


NOAO was operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) under a cooperative agreement with the NSF. Its headquarters in Tucson, Arizona were co-located with the headquarters of the National Solar Observatory. The budget for NOAO during the 2017 fiscal year was nearly $23 million.

NOAO was founded in 1984 to join the operations of the Kitt Peak National Observatory in the United States with the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. On October 1, 2019, NOAO merged its operations with the Gemini Observatory and the Vera C. Rubin Observatory to form NSF's NOIRLab.


NOAO operated world class research telescopes in both the northern and southern hemispheres. These telescopes, located at Kitt Peak and Cerro Tololo in the US and Chile respectively, remain in operation under the auspices of the NSF’s NOIRLab. The two sites allow US astronomers to make observations over the entire sky. Instrumentation includes optical to near infrared wavelength (0.4 to 5 micrometers) cameras and spectrometers.

Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO)

CTIO has a base and office facility in the seaside town of La Serena, Chile. The CTIO telescopes are located some 70 km inland in the foothills of the Chilean Andes. Access to the observatory is made through the picturesque Elqui Valley.

Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory Tololo a.JPG
Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory

Telescopes at CTIO include the Victor M. Blanco Telescope (named after astronomer Victor Manuel Blanco in 1995) which employs a wide-field of view CCD (Charge-coupled device), a wide field of view near infrared imager (1-2.5 micrometers) and a multi-object fiber fed spectrograph working at visible wavelengths.

The Blanco 4m played the central role in the discovery of dark energy, a poorly understood component to the universe which is currently causing the universe to accelerate in its expansion. The Blanco began hosting a new 3-degree field of view camera called the Dark Energy Camera, also known as DECam, in 2012. This camera is being built at Fermilab in Chicago, USA, and will be operated by CTIO. This instrument was built to execute the Dark Energy Survey, an undertaking to image a large part of the sky to faint light levels, detecting galaxy large scale structure as a function of look back time to shed light on the nature of dark energy.

CTIO operates, and is a partner in the 4.1m Southern Astrophysical Research Telescope (SOAR). SOAR concentrates on high angular resolution observations and will soon deploy an adaptive optics module to help support such observations.

Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO)

Sign at Kitt Peak National Observatory Sign (7554301964).jpg
Sign at Kitt Peak National Observatory

KPNO is located near Tucson, AZ, USA. The mountain, Kitt Peak, is part of the tribal lands of the Native American people the Tohono O'odham. The mountain has been leased from the Tohono O'odham since 1958. The native name for the mountain is "loligam" which means manzanita.

Kitt Peak National Observatory Kittpeak2.jpg
Kitt Peak National Observatory

The observatory was established in 1958, and its largest telescope, the Nicholas Mayall 4m was dedicated in 1973. The Mayall played a key role in the discovery of dark matter though observations of external galaxies which showed that the galaxies rotated faster than they should have if the motion were due only to the mass in stars seen in visible light images.

A new wide field imager working at near infrared wavelengths (NEWFIRM) has been deployed to advance studies of galactic star formation, cosmology, and the structure and evolution of galaxies.

NOAO Gemini Science Center (NGSC)

NOAO also manages US participation in the international Gemini Observatory. Gemini is a partnership of Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The US holds a 50% share of the project (funded by the NSF) which provides public access time on each of Gemini's two 8m telescopes. One telescope is located near CTIO in Chile, and the other is located on the island of Hawaii.

Gemini Observatory on Cerro Pachon in Chile Gemini South 01.jpg
Gemini Observatory on Cerro Pachon in Chile

Gemini is the only facility available to all US astronomers on a permanent basis for large aperture science. Large apertures are typically taken to be between 6.5m and 10m. Gemini provides near infrared, mid infrared (10-20 micrometer), and optical imaging and spectroscopy in both the southern and northern hemispheres.

One of Gemini's strengths is high angular resolution imaging accomplished through laser guide star adaptive optics. These facilities are already making an impact. For example, Gemini astronomers, along with their collaborators at the 10m W. M. Keck Observatory, recently announced the first images of an extra solar system with three detected planets circling their parent star, an A-type star known as HR 8799. [1]

Vera C. Rubin Observatory (LSST survey)

NOAO was a founding partner in the Vera C. Rubin Observatory project. Rubin Observatory is an 8m class telescope which will change the way some astronomers do science. More like a large physics program, Rubin Observatory will run its own experiment and provide data to the Rubin Observatory community in the form of images and astronomical catalogs. Rubin Observatory will have a dedicated wide field imager, and the telescope will cover the entire sky visible from the southern hemisphere approximately every week. By repeating the observations over and over for ten years, the Rubin Observatory will produce a very deep image of the sky, but it will also detect large numbers of astronomical objects which vary in brightness daily or on longer time scales. Rubin Observatory scientists will analyze, or "mine", the LSST data rather than go to the telescope to make their own observations.

Rubin Observatory is currently in the pre-construction phase, with first light targeted for 2023. During this phase, AURA is managing for design & development of the Rubin Observatory telescope system and site facilities. Rubin Observatory will be located on Cerro Pachón in Chile, near the Gemini and SOAR telescopes. It will be operated by NOIRLab and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

The 4-meter aperture Mayall telescope 4m telescope at Kitt Peak.jpg
The 4-meter aperture Mayall telescope

At the beginning of the new millennium, the National Academy of Sciences published its report on Astronomy and Astrophysics in the coming decade. Among other high priorities, the committee responsible for the report concluded: [2]

U.S. ground-based optical and infrared viewed by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the astronomical community as a single integrated system drawing on both federal and nonfederal funding sources. Effective national organizations are essential to coordinate, and to ensure the success and efficiency of, these systems. Universities and independent observatories should work with the national organizations to ensure the success of these systems.

NOAO has worked very hard with the US community in the ensuing years in developing this System. A clear success story is the public access to non-federal large aperture telescopes through the NSF funded and NOAO managed Telescope System Instrumentation Program (TSIP). This program, accomplished with the enthusiastic support of the US non federal observatories, supplies the broad US community with some 70 nights of observing time per year.

This System goal was further reiterated by the NSF Senior Review in 2007 when it reviewed the full suite of NSF ground-based astronomy facilities. [3] NOAO continued to work on behalf of the community to effectively shape the System and gain steady, state-of-the-art research capabilities of all apertures for open, merit based science.

A future major capability for the US system is an Extremely Large Telescope with diameter up to 30 meters. Two private consortia are currently working on such projects which may be operational before the end of the decade. These are the Thirty Meter Telescope and Giant Magellan Telescope. NOAO was working with both projects in planning for potential future involvement of the broad US community through operational support funding by the NSF.

See also

Related Research Articles

Kitt Peak National Observatory United States astronomical observatory

The Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) is a United States astronomical observatory located on Kitt Peak of the Quinlan Mountains in the Arizona-Sonoran Desert on the Tohono O'odham Nation, 88 kilometers (55 mi) west-southwest of Tucson, Arizona. With more than twenty optical and two radio telescopes, it is one of the largest gatherings of astronomical instruments in the Earth's northern hemisphere.

W. M. Keck Observatory Astronomical observatory located in Hawaii

The W. M. Keck Observatory is a two-telescope astronomical observatory at an elevation of 4,145 meters (13,600 ft) near the summit of Mauna Kea in the U.S. state of Hawaii. Both telescopes have 10 m (33 ft) aperture primary mirrors, and when completed in 1993 and 1996 were the largest astronomical telescopes in the world. They are currently the 3rd and 4th largest.

Observational astronomy Division of astronomy

Observational astronomy is a division of astronomy that is concerned with recording data about the observable universe, in contrast with theoretical astronomy, which is mainly concerned with calculating the measurable implications of physical models. It is the practice and study of observing celestial objects with the use of telescopes and other astronomical instruments.

Gemini Observatory Astronomical observatory with telescopes in Hawaii and Chile

The Gemini Observatory is an astronomical observatory consisting of two 8.1-metre (26.6 ft) telescopes, Gemini North and Gemini South, which are located at two separate sites in Hawaii and Chile, respectively. The twin Gemini telescopes provide almost complete coverage of both the northern and southern skies. They are currently among the largest and most advanced optical/infrared telescopes available to astronomers. (See List of largest optical reflecting telescopes).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory</span> Observatory in Chile

The Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) is an astronomical observatory located on Cerro Tololo in the Coquimbo Region of northern Chile, with additional facilities located on Cerro Pachón about 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) to the southeast. It is approximately 80 kilometres (50 mi) east of La Serena, where support facilities are located. The site was identified by a team of scientists from Chile and the United States in 1959, and it was selected in 1962. Construction began in 1963 and regular astronomical observations commenced in 1965. Construction of large buildings on Cerro Tololo ended with the completion of the Víctor Blanco Telescope in 1974, but smaller facilities have been built since then. Cerro Pachón is still under development, with two large telescopes inaugurated since 2000, and one in the early stages of construction

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy</span> Operating consortium for observatories and telescopes

The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) is a consortium of universities and other institutions that operates astronomical observatories and telescopes.

Southern Astrophysical Research Telescope Observatory in Chile

The Southern Astrophysical Research (SOAR) telescope is a modern 4.1-meter (13 ft) aperture optical and near-infrared telescope located on Cerro Pachón, Chile at 2,738 metres (8,983 ft) elevation. It was commissioned in 2003, and is operated by a consortium including the countries of Brazil and Chile, Michigan State University, the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO), and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Partners have guaranteed shares varying from 10 to 30 percent of the observing time.

McMath–Pierce solar telescope Telescope in Pima County, Arizona

McMath–Pierce solar telescope is a 1.6 m f/54 reflecting solar telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, United States. Built in 1962, the building was designed by American architect Myron Goldsmith and Bangladeshi-American structural engineer Fazlur Rahman Khan. It was the largest solar telescope and the largest unobstructed aperture telescope in the world. It is named after the astronomers Robert Raynolds McMath and Keith Pierce.

Leuschner Observatory, originally called the Students' Observatory, is an observatory jointly operated by the University of California, Berkeley and San Francisco State University. The observatory was built in 1886 on the Berkeley campus. For many years, it was directed by Armin Otto Leuschner, for whom the observatory was renamed in 1951. In 1965, it was relocated to its present home in Lafayette, California, approximately 10 miles (16 km) east of the Berkeley campus. In 2012, the physics and astronomy department of San Francisco State University became a partner.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Astronomical interferometer</span> Array used for astronomical observations

An astronomical interferometer or telescope array is a set of separate telescopes, mirror segments, or radio telescope antennas that work together as a single telescope to provide higher resolution images of astronomical objects such as stars, nebulas and galaxies by means of interferometry. The advantage of this technique is that it can theoretically produce images with the angular resolution of a huge telescope with an aperture equal to the separation between the component telescopes. The main drawback is that it does not collect as much light as the complete instrument's mirror. Thus it is mainly useful for fine resolution of more luminous astronomical objects, such as close binary stars. Another drawback is that the maximum angular size of a detectable emission source is limited by the minimum gap between detectors in the collector array.

Vera C. Rubin Observatory 8 meter astronomical survey telescope

The Vera C. Rubin Observatory, previously referred to as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), is an astronomical observatory currently under construction in Chile. Its main task will be carrying out a synoptic astronomical survey, the Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST). The word synoptic is derived from the Greek words σύν and ὄψις, and describes observations that give a broad view of a subject at a particular time. The observatory is located on the El Peñón peak of Cerro Pachón, a 2,682-meter-high mountain in Coquimbo Region, in northern Chile, alongside the existing Gemini South and Southern Astrophysical Research Telescopes. The LSST Base Facility is located about 100 kilometres (62 mi) away by road, in the town of La Serena. The observatory is named for Vera Rubin, an American astronomer who pioneered discoveries about galaxy rotation rates.

The US National Virtual Observatory'-NVO- was conceived to allow scientists to access data from multiple astronomical observatories, including ground and space-based facilities, through a single portal. Originally, the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded the information technology research that created the basic NVO infrastructure through a multi-organization collaborative effort. The NVO was more than a “digital library”; it was a vibrant, growing online research facility akin to a bricks-and-mortar observatory for professional astronomers.

Víctor Manuel Blanco was a Puerto Rican astronomer who in 1959 discovered Blanco 1, a galactic cluster. Blanco was the second Director of the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, which had the largest telescope in the Southern Hemisphere at the time. In 1995, the 4-meter telescope was dedicated in his honor and named the Víctor M. Blanco Telescope; it is also known as the "Blanco 4m."

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Víctor M. Blanco Telescope</span> Telescope located in Chile

The Víctor M. Blanco Telescope, also known as the Blanco 4m, is a 4-metre aperture telescope located at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, Chile. Commissioned in 1974 and completed in 1976, the telescope is identical to the Mayall 4m telescope located on Kitt Peak. In 1995 it was dedicated and named in honour of Puerto Rican astronomer Víctor Manuel Blanco. It was the largest optical telescope in the Southern hemisphere from 1976 until 1998, when the first 8-metre telescope of the ESO Very Large Telescope opened.

Nicholas U. Mayall Telescope Four-meter reflector telescope in Pima County, Arizona

The Nicholas U. Mayall Telescope, also known as the Mayall 4-meter Telescope, is a four-meter reflector telescope located at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona and named after Nicholas U. Mayall. It saw first light on February 27, 1973, and was the second-largest telescope in the world at that time. Initial observers included David Crawford, Nicholas Mayall, and Arthur Hoag. It was dedicated on June 20, 1973 after Mayall's retirement as director. The mirror has an f/2.7 hyperboloidal shape. It is made from a two-foot thick fused quartz disk that is supported in an advanced-design mirror cell. The prime focus has a field of view six times larger than that of the Hale reflector. It is host to the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument. The identical Victor M. Blanco Telescope was later built at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, in Chile.

Matt Mountain President of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy

Charles Mattias ("Matt") Mountain is currently the President of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy which designs, builds, and operates telescopes and observatories for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). AURA's NASA center is the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), responsible for the science mission for the Hubble Space Telescope, the science and operations for the James Webb Space Telescope, and the MAST data archive. AURA's NSF centers are Gemini Observatory, the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), and the National Solar Observatory (NSO). Dr. Mountain and AURA are also responsible for the NSF construction projects: the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) on Haleakalā, Hawaii and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) on Cerro Pachón in Chile.

Richard Green is an American astronomer, former director of the Kitt Peak National Observatory, UKIRT and the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory.

Sidney Carne Wolff is an American astrophysicist, researcher, public educator, and author. She is the first woman in the United States to head a major observatory, and she provided significant contributions to the construction of six telescopes. Wolff served as Director of the Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO). She is a member of the International Astronomical Union's Division G: Stars and Stellar Physics.

Dara J. Norman is an astronomer and the Deputy Director of the Community Science and Data Center at the National Science Foundation's National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory (NOIRLab) in Tucson, Arizona. She is also the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy Diversity Advocate at NOAO. Her research centers on the influence of Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN) on the evolution of galaxies. In 2020, she was inducted into the inaugural cohort of American Astronomical Society Fellows in recognition of her leadership and achievements.


NSF’s NOIRLab is a federally funded research and development center for ground-based, nighttime optical and infrared astronomy.


  1. Marois, C.; MacIntosh, B.; Barman, T.; Zuckerman, B.; Song, I.; Patience, J.; Lafreniere, D.; Doyon, R. (2008). "Direct Imaging of Multiple Planets Orbiting the Star HR 8799". Science. 322 (5906): 1348–1352. arXiv: 0811.2606 . Bibcode:2008Sci...322.1348M. doi:10.1126/science.1166585. PMID   19008415. S2CID   206516630.
  2. Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium, Astronomy and Astrophysics Survey Committee, Board on Physics and Astronomy–Space Studies Board, Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Applications, National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.
  3. From the Ground Up: Balancing the NSG Astronomy Program