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Fall/Winter 2010 Vol. 10 Number 3

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Artist's concept of closest known planetary system, Epsilon Eridani, courtesy NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

New Horizons

Decadal Survey Identifies Top Priorities for Astronomy and Astrophysics

In the last few decades, astronomers have discovered hundreds of planets orbiting distant suns, determined the size, shape, and age of the universe, and learned that its expansion is accelerating in unexpected ways.

These recent discoveries, combined with powerful new ways to observe the universe and bold ideas to understand it, create unprecedented scientific opportunities. However, choosing the best ways to capitalize on these advances in a time of tight budgets and limited resources presents a huge challenge for the nation.

For more than 50 years, the National Research Council's influential decadal surveys of astronomy and astrophysics have provided recommendations on the highest-priority research activities. The latest of these surveys does the same, but for the first time it also takes into account factors such as risks in technical readiness, schedule, and cost. The recommendations are motivated by three science objectives: deepening understanding of how the first stars, galaxies, and black holes formed; locating the closest habitable Earth-like planets beyond the solar system for detailed study; and using astronomical measurements to unravel the mysteries of gravity and probe fundamental physics.

Artist's concept of pulsar planet system, courtesy NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

The survey identifies space- and ground-based research activities in three categories: large, midsize, and small. For large space activities costing more than $1 billion, an observatory called Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) should be the top priority. The proposed telescope would help settle fundamental questions about the nature of dark energy, determine the likelihood of other Earth-like planets over a wide range of orbital parameters, and survey our galaxy and others. Other priorities in the large-scale space category include an augmentation to the Explorer program to support small- and medium-sized missions that provide high scientific returns; the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), which could enable detection of long gravitational waves or "ripples in space-time"; and the International X-Ray Observatory, a large-area X-ray telescope that could transform understanding of stars, galaxies, and black holes in all evolutionary stages.

For large, ground-based research activities with budgets that exceed $135 million, the first priority should be the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), a wide-field optical survey telescope that would observe more than half the sky every four nights and be used to address diverse areas of study such as dark energy, supernovae, and time-variable phenomena. Other recommendations in this category include the formation of a Midscale Innovations Program within the National Science Foundation to fill a funding gap for compelling research activities that cost between $4 million and $135 million. The survey also recommends participation in the U.S.-led international Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope, a next-generation large optical telescope that is vital for continuing the long record of U.S. leadership in ground-based optical astronomy.

The committee that conducted the survey selected research priorities after an extensive review that included input from nine expert panels, six study groups, and a broad survey of the astronomy and astrophysics community. Alongside newly proposed projects, it reassessed projects that were recommended in past surveys but not formally started.

Research in astronomy offers significant benefits to the nation beyond discoveries by capturing the public's imagination and promoting general science literacy and proficiency, the committee said. This research can also serve as a gateway to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers, and spark important and often unexpected technological breakthroughs. --  Molly Galvin

New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics. Committee on the Decadal Survey of Astronomy and Astrophysics; Board on Physics and Astronomy and Space Studies Board; Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences (2010; approx. 270 pp.; ISBN 0-309-15799-4 available from the National Academies Press; tel. 1-800-624-6242; $43.95 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Roger Blandford, Luke Blossom Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif. The study was funded by NASA, National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Energy, and a contribution from the Vesto Slipher bequest to the Academies.

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Copyright 2010 by the National Academy of Sciences