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Director's Message November 2008

Doug Simons
Director, Gemini Observatory

Figure 1. The first step in the formulation of Gemini's new Energy Policy is through the new "Green Blog" on Gemini's internal web site. Staff are encouraged to use this blog to suggest energy-saving changes at our various facilities. The response to this blog has been overwhelmingly positive.

Mapping Gemini Observatory's Long Range Future

By Doug Simons

The next five years will bring a range of challenges and opportunities to Gemini Observatory that will be unique in our relatively brief history. In that time we will not only transition into a new funding cycle but, more importantly, a new International Agreement which may include new partners or at least a redistribution of shares among the current partners. Furthermore, with the completion of multi-conjugate adaptive optics (MCAO) at Gemini South, we will transition from one of many AO-capable observatories to a truly AO-optimized facility, unmatched well into the next decade. With the arrival of FLAMINGOS-2 at Gemini South and redeployment of the Gemini Near-infrared Spectrograph (GNIRS) at Gemini North, we will finally be able to offer our community world class near-infrared spectroscopic capabilities at both sites. Finally, with the development of next-generation instrumentation like the Gemini Planet Imager and hopefully the Wide-field Multi-object Spectrograph (WFMOS), breakthrough research opportunities will be possible for our community well into the next decade. Ensuring that all of these complex milestones (with a range of technical, financial, and political implications) are met, requires that we plan ahead well into our future to proactively manage this complex and interlinked activity.

While Gemini’s new observatory-wide planning system is focused on near-term (1-5 year) activity (see my Director’s message in the June 2008 issue of GeminiFocus) we have recently launched a new initiative to develop our Long-range Plan. It is intended to answer the question “What should the state of Gemini Observatory be in 2020?” We chose 2020 because, on that timescale, the nature of astronomy (and Gemini’s role in it) will be revolutionized by such technological marvels as one extremely large telescope (ELT), the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), and advanced survey facilities such as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) and the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS).

For centuries, astronomy has been a technology-driven endeavor, and the nature and extent of our discovery horizon will expand with these impressive new machines. Like many of today’s 4-meter telescopes, in the future Gemini and other 8- to 10-meter-class telescopes will slowly transform into support facilities for even more advanced observing platforms. But slipstreaming Gemini into that new mold, whatever it may be, requires considerable forethought, community engagement, resource alignment, and above all, planning.

To support a viable Long-range Plan process Gemini, our funding agencies, and community need to work together to achieve not just a “blue sky” vision that captures our collective imagination, but one that is also viable given realistic projections of resource availability. Failing to ground our vision with a realistic assessment of what is achievable will lead to mismatched expectations and disappointment in the end. That is why I have engaged Gemini Observatory at this early stage in the long-range planning process to look into the future and identify key needs and trends that will shape and leverage whatever scientific missions our community and governing board define. Some of the more obvious elements that will impact Gemini include the skyrocketing cost of energy, which impacts us not only through higher electricity bills but through our travel expenses. For example, Gemini’s engineering staff was deliberately sized to be sub-critical in the sense that we do not keep a full complement of engineering resources at both sites all the time, finding it more cost-effective to shuttle staff between sites as required. Perhaps the most visible example of this practice is with our mirror coating system. During the recent Gemini North mirror coating process we had around ten members of the Gemini South engineering team in Hawai‘i for several weeks to assist with that complex process. That operations model is being challenged now by much higher international airfares and we will have to be more innovative in our approach to supporting both sites within the constraints of our existing budget. Another result of rising energy costs is that Gemini Observatory will develop an energy policy next year. In fact, we expect by 2020 that such policies will be as commonplace as procurement, retirement, and travel policies for businesses and non-profit organizations alike. In the future, energy will simply be too precious of a resource to use without a more deliberate approach to managing it.

Arguably the most complex and strategically important component of our Long-range Plan will be the science mission definition for Gemini in 2020. It might also be termed the “post Aspen” era. A wide range of inputs must be considered, including the national strategic plans already defined or about to be defined (e.g., the U.S. Decadal Survey), assessments of technologies available in the future, and a comprehensive instrument deployment plan that includes not only new instruments but a process and a plan for decommissioning old ones. Key milestones in the formulation of our scientific strategic plan include the upcoming joint Subaru/Gemini Kyoto science conference in 2009 and likely an international Gemini science workshop in 2010. In these gatherings, the voices of our diverse community will be heard as we identify common threads and weave a coherent mission.

All of this long-range planning activity will culminate with the submission of Gemini’s next funding proposal, which will contain a justification for future funding for Gemini’s operations and development programs. The collective vision of our community, funding agencies, and the Observatory will be captured in that funding proposal, which will define the resources, technologies, and timescale needed to make that vision a reality. Although it’s admittedly complex, I personally find this process to be fascinating as we tap the creativity of so many contributors to Gemini’s future.

Underlying all of this is a core philosophy that transcends the countless “details” alluded to above. Defining our future and then taking the needed steps to live into that future isn’t just a business or planning strategy. It’s an essential component of the life experience. Gemini is very much a reflection of its diverse and resourceful community and its strengths and weaknesses are inextricably linked to those of the people that operate, fund, and use it. There are few experiences in life more rewarding than defining an exciting vision and then watching it crystallize over time through the actions of a vibrant team. That is the experience I was privileged to have as part of the original Gemini 8-meter Telescopes Project team and it is that same experience I intend to share in the future with our new team, the stewards of Gemini Observatory.