Key Projects

Call for Proposals for Key Projects to use the Las Cumbres Observatory telescope network

Letters of Intent for Key Projects must be submitted by November 1, 2016
Proposals for Key Projects must be submitted by December 15, 2016 at 23:59 UTC

LCO is planning to dedicate up to 70% of its 0.4-meter, 1-meter, and 2-meter telescope time starting in semester 2017AB to key projects. Key projects are large, coherent observing programs designed to take maximum advantage of the unique attributes of the LCO network to address important astrophysical problems. Our goal is to highlight for the world the best science that can be done with the LCO network. It is anticipated that key projects will have a minimum duration of one year and a maximum of three years. Only one of the current key projects (AGN Reverberation Mapping) will continue past the end of semester 2016B, and so we expect to approve two or three new ones to start at this time. Time not allocated for key projects will be available for standard proposals, for which a call will be issued near the end of January 2017. The expected 1-year total of time available for key projects through this call is approximately 6000 hours of 1-meter time and 1400 hours of 2-meter time.

Key projects will be large efforts – involving several thousand hours of observation. We expect that project teams will form to carry these out. The level of effort will be significant but the potential return is great. Because LCO is contributing large amounts of telescope time to support this program, we require that collaborators on proposing teams coming from other institutions commit significant resources to the effort. Such resources could be access to other facilities, or additional time on the LCO network from their own institution, or computing resources, or scientist time.

We invite all members of the LCO science collaboration to submit proposals to the LCO Key Project Program as Principal Investigators or as members of a proposing team. This includes the LCO site partners (ANU, CNTAC, SAAO, IfA, and University of Texas), including those sites (IAC, NAOC and Wise Obs/I-CORE) at which telescopes are planned but not yet built. It also includes the institutions with which we have other types of partnerships – IPAC, University of Colorado , University of California at Santa Barbara, ARI/LJMU, St. Andrews University, and the entire U.S. astronomical community through NOAO. Anyone who lists one of these institutions as their affiliation for published research may PI a proposal. We also invite the LCO extended scientific family – in addition to current staff, this includes astronomers who were postdocs at LCO within the last 5 years, and astronomers who contributed to our advisory and allocation committees within the last 2 years.

In order to manage this process effectively, we require that anyone who intends to submit a key project proposal submit a letter of intent by November 1, 2016. Letters of intent will allow us to identify potential collaborators and to ensure appropriate expertise on the TAC.

Definition of Key Projects

Key projects are large projects that will have substantial scientific impact on problems that are widely considered to be of significant astrophysical interest. They require a large number of hours (at least 500), and may require observations over several years (nominally up to 3 years, though scientific arguments for longer periods will be considered). Key projects often provide observational or derived data sets that are of interest to other researchers, in part because they can gather observations of a particular class of object in a coherent and uniform way.

Key projects are carried out by well-organized teams with well thought out management of effort and resources. They are likely to require resources in addition to the telescope time, perhaps computing for analysis or theoretical studies, or time on larger telescopes to further follow a subset of the sample.
Key projects have a final goal; they are not just a data gathering exercise. It is expected that the project is designed to accomplish that goal, and that the resources are available or there is a plan for acquiring the needed resources.

Semester dates

The 2017AB semester will run from April 1 to November 30, 2017. Following 2017AB, the A semesters will run December 1 to May 31, and the B semesters will run June 1 to November 30.  The nominal maximum period for new key projects will be April 1, 2017 to May 31, 2020.

Review Process and Criteria

Proposals will be reviewed by a panel of external astronomers (TAC), from institutions that are not part of the LCO collaboration. They will be selected not only to ensure that their scientific expertise covers the range over which we expect to receive key project proposals, but al so in that they understand the types of observations that the LCO facilities can do uniquely well.

The TAC will rank the proposals based on the following criteria:

Scientific merit

The value that the proposed project will have both within the area of specialization and more broadly, within astronomy and science, generally.  It is important that the science goals be crisply defined so that the key projects do not fence off areas of research that others outside the key project would like to pursue.

Credibility of effort

The probability that the study can be carried out as described. Are the resources available consistent with what will be needed?

Experimental design

Are the proposed observations and other work consistent with the LCO network and other capabilities? Have they been thought out in sufficient detail and depth?

Suitability for LCO’s unique capabilities

Does the proposed study take advantage of the unique aspects of the LCO network? Will this project demonstrate a result that could not be obtained without LCO?

Resources brought by other collaborators

While we want to encourage collaboration within the group of institutions that have worked together to make the LCO network a reality, we also want the burden of carrying out large projects like these to be shared fairly. We expect that any institution that participates in a key project will demonstrate a commitment to such a significant effort. We imagine a wide range of different types of resources may be relevant, and we leave it to proposers to be creative.  Note that LCO makes a commitment of up to three years on the allocation of time.  The time period over which other resource commitments are being made should be explicit.

In addition to their ranking, the TAC will make a recommendation to the LCO Director, who will allocate the LCO time, based on the TAC recommendation as well as programmatic considerations.

Announcement of successful programs will be made by January 20, 2017.

In future years, this TAC will also review progress on continuing proposals and make a recommendation on whether to adjust the network time allocation relative to what has been requested.

Instructions for Letters of Intent and for Submitting Proposals

In order to help us better manage this process, proposers must submit a letter of intent by November 1, 2016. Letters of intent should be submitted by email to and should include:

Names and affiliations of individuals, with an indication of interest in being the PI of a proposal

  • General subject area of interest
  • Specific interests within the general subjects area
  • Resources that this individual or group intends to bring to the key project

We intend to circulate the list of individuals and interests received through letters of intent to those who submitted such letters, as well as all science collaboration representatives. We leave the structuring and management of these collaborations to the proposers

Proposals approved as new key projects will be required to submit annual status reports, together with requests for modifications to the allocations specified in the original proposal. These reports will be reviewed by the key project TAC in subsequent years, and the requested modifications will be considered on the basis of the TAC review.

Observatory Capabilities

By the start of the 2017AB semester, it is expected that the LCO network will comprise the following characteristics and capabilities:

Two 2-meter telescopes, each instrumented with a Spectral imager and a FLOYDS low-dispersion spectrographs.

Nine 1-meter telescopes, each instrumented with a Sinistro imager.  It is expected that four of the high-resolution, high-stability NRES instruments will be deployed during 2017 and available by the start semester 2018A.  These will be at our sites in Chile, South Africa, Texas, and at the Wise Observatory 1-meter telescope in Israel.  NRES will be the only instrument available on the Wise telescope.  It is expected that two additional 1-meter telescopes will be available at Ali Observatory in western Tibet by the start of semester 2019A.

Three 0.4-meter telescopes are available for this program, one each at our sites at Tenerife, Australia, and Maui.  A fourth 0.4-meter telescope is expected to be deployed to Chile by the start of semester 2018A.  The 0.4-m telescopes are equipped with SBIG 6303 imagers.

A single software scheduler optimizes the assignment of observations to telescopes.  Conflicts are addressed by trying to balance the scientific priority of an observation with the desire to prevent idle time.  Key projects are given high scientific priority in the scheduling system. However, note that the network does not cover all parameters uniformly – for example, projects that can do most of their observing with the eight 1-meter telescopes in the southern hemisphere will have much more success than those that require significant time on the single 1-meter telescope in the northern hemisphere.

Current key projects have found it advantageous to develop software tools to help them manage their projects, including their interaction with the observatory system and within their team.  Observation requests are submitted to the LCO scheduler either through a web form or through a programmatic API.  APIs also exist to query status of observations and to retrieve data.  Observations are specified as one or more exposures, optionally linked by a defined cadence.  A rapid response mode is also supported for cases in which an exposure must start immediately (less than 15 minutes).

Calibration observations, including bias frames, dark frames, flat fields, and photometric standard fields are obtained automatically.  Science exposures are all pipeline processed and maintained in a science archive.  Raw data are available from the archive within a few minutes after the completion of each exposure.  Quicklook reduced data are available a few minutes later, and final reduced data are available following the completion of end-of-night calibrations at the relevant site.  Data are proprietary for 12 months from the date of observation, and public thereafter.

More information on the capabilities of the LCO network can be found on our observatory information pages.