MAUNA KEA, Hawaii (October 10th, 2002) All U.S. astronomers will gain competitive access to the twin 10-meter Keck telescopes starting early next year via an innovative new National Science Foundation program administered by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO).

Known as the Telescope System Instrumentation Program (TSIP), this new initiative will strengthen the relationship between publicly funded telescopes, like those operated by NOAO, and privately funded telescopes at independent observatories, which are operated by universities and other consortia.

Using a competitive process on both ends of the deal, TSIP offers funding from the NSF to develop cutting-edge astronomical instrumentation for ground-based telescopes with apertures of six meters or larger. In return, the private observatory must provide a proportional amount of observing time on the telescope, which is then made available to the entire U.S. community via the regular, proposal-based NOAO time allocation process.

In the first two awards under the TSIP program, the privately operated W.M. Keck Observatory will receive $3.89 million for two advanced astronomical instrumentation proposals. The TSIP formula requires telescope-observing time equal in value to one-half the instrumentation funding. Therefore, Keck will provide 41 total nights on one of the two Keck telescopes, with a night of observing on the world’s largest ground-based optical/infrared telescopes valued at $47,400.

The NSF funds will support the fabrication of an integral field spectrograph for the Keck II telescope called OSIRIS, at a cost of $2.75 million, plus one year of the preliminary design effort for an advanced near-infrared imager and multi-object spectrograph for Keck II named KIRMOS, at a cost of $1.14 million.

“The TSIP program is an extraordinary opportunity to add essential instruments to the Keck telescopes that will dramatically increase our understanding of the cosmos within ten years,” said Frederic Chaffee, director of the W.M. Keck Observatory. “The National Science Foundation and the Keck Observatory make a natural team for astronomical science in the United States, and we are very pleased to share in this program.”

TSIP was the highest-priority moderate initiative of the McKee-Taylor Decadal Survey of astronomy, published in 2000 as the latest installment in a continuing series of long-term studies by the National Research Council intended to prioritize the subsequent decade of astronomy.

“One of the key themes of the Decadal Survey was the need for an improved U.S. ‘system’ of public-private observatories, both to give increased coherence to the progress of research and to provide state-of-the-art capabilities to the entire astronomical community,” said Alan Dressler of the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, CA, chairman of the survey’s subcommittee on ground-based optical/infrared astronomy. “It is very encouraging to see TSIP take flight.”

“If we do it right, TSIP will provide new, scientifically important capabilities to all U.S. astronomers, and it will strengthen the increasingly important public-private partnership in astronomical research by recognizing and rewarding the huge investment made by independent observatories in building the current generation of large telescopes,” said NOAO Deputy Director Todd Boroson.

The first competitive solicitation for TSIP proposals was issued in December 2001. Twelve of the 41 nights at the W.M. Keck Observatory will be awarded during the next NOAO time allocation process, which provides observing time at national optical/infrared telescope facilities for the period from February-July 2003.

Each of the twin Keck telescopes on the 13,800-foot summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii, stands eight stories tall and weighs 300 tons. At the heart of each Keck telescope is a revolutionary primary mirror composed of 36 hexagonal segments that work in concert as a single piece of reflective glass. Made possible through grants from the W.M. Keck Foundation, the observatory is operated by the California Association for Research in Astronomy, a scientific partnership of the California Institute of Technology, the University of California, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), Inc., under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation. NOAO operates telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, AZ, and Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory near La Serena, Chile, and it is the U.S. partner in the International Gemini Observatory.