Astronomers Announce Priorities for Next Decade

Giant Magellan Telescope (art)
An artist’s idea of the Giant Magellan Telescope in operation.
The Giant Magellan Telescope Project

Iconic space telescopes undergo lengthy pipelines from proposal to design to launch. So each decade, the space and astronomy group comes collectively to make suggestions for the devices and amenities they will have to maintain pushing again the boundaries of discovery. The end result, referred to as the Decadal Survey for Astronomy and Astrophysics, is a big deal for the astronomical community, because it gives the marching orders for the approaching decade and past.

On Thursday, November 4th, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released the long-awaited, 614-page report. Titled “Pathways to Discovery in Astronomy and Astrophysics for the 2020s” (dubbed Astro2020 in additional casual settings), the report relied on recommendation from over 867 white papers, a number of public information-gathering periods, and 13 knowledgeable panels to kind its suggestions.

The merchandise that may little doubt obtain essentially the most fanfare is the report’s suggestion that NASA pursue growth of a 6-meter space telescope that may see in infrared, seen, and ultraviolet mild. That implies that of the flagship mission ideas that competed for precedence, seen mild received out over X-ray and far-infrared observatories. But these are nonetheless on the record, they will simply have to attend longer for growth.

“This is a visionary road map for the future of discovery,” says Grant Tremblay (Center for Astrophysics, Harvard & Smithsonian), member of the Lynx mission idea proposal. “I’m utterly grateful that the committee has shown an achievable and maximally ambitious path toward a new constellation of Great Observatories.”

“We are excited that the vision of Lynx will embark on a journey toward flight as part of the Great Observatories Technology & Mission Maturation Program,” he provides. “Alongside our friends and colleagues on the LUVOIR, HabEx, and Origins mission concepts, we are committed to the success of this journey. This is the first day of an entirely new epoch of discovery, and the New Great Observatories are poised to answer the greatest questions that lie before us.”

Four flagship mission concepts (art)
Artist’s ideas of 4 doable future missions (clockwise from higher left) Origins, LUVOIR, Lynx, and HabEx.
NASA

In a primary for decadals, on this survey there was additionally a panel targeted not on amenities however on folks. The result’s a name for funding in workforce variety, guaranteeing that insurance policies are in place to take care of harassment, discrimination, and misconduct. Specifically, the report names the racial variety amongst astronomy college “abysmal.” Since the issue was first recognized within the 1980 decadal survey, the numbers have remained largely unchanged: Currently, 1% of college are African American and three% Hispanic. To tackle this, the report recommends elevated funding incentives to enhance variety in astrophysics and astronomy college.

It’s price noting that the COVID-forced delay implies that the suggestions on this report will miss the congressional reconciliation invoice at present on the Senate flooring, and so they might not be a part of the President’s FY 2023 funds request. For this cause, the report’s suggestions begin in 2023.

Science Goals for the Next Decade

The scientific imaginative and prescient within the survey is specified by three broad themes geared toward enabling key discoveries in astronomy and astrophysics:

  • Worlds and Suns in Context will construct on our understanding of exoplanet science by characterizing planetary methods round different stars and looking out for potential Earth analogs. To this finish, the report prioritizes imaging and acquiring spectra from doubtlessly liveable exoplanets.
  • New Messengers and New Physics will use time-domain observations throughout multi-messenger observations (electromagnetic spectrum, gravitational wave, and particle physics) to probe the character of inflation, dark energy and darkish matter. By combining multi-messenger observations, astronomers will receive new home windows on unique sources together with black holes, neutron stars, and explosive merger occasions.
  • Cosmic Ecosystems will work to attach working fashions of star formation and galactic evolution with particular processes, to find out their previous and supreme future. The prime motivation is to grasp how galaxies develop by how gas drives stellar formation, and in flip, galactic evolution.
Timeline of astronomy projects
The report gave a proposed timeline for astronomy initiatives by way of mid-century.
National Academies of Sciences / Astro2020 Decadal Survey

And the Winner Is…

In a change from earlier surveys, Astro2020 is advocating the event of a “Great Observatories Mission and Technology Maturation Program.” This program would information the event of key applied sciences and missions earlier than committing to particular mission ideas. One solely has to take a look at the convoluted paths of missions such because the James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch in December after greater than a decade of delays, to understand simply how advanced the method might be.

The first merchandise on the wishlist — and the primary to enter the maturation program — can be a big, 6-meter (20-foot) aperture telescope able to imaging in infrared, seen, and ultraviolet mild. This choice focuses on the exoplanets science theme, principally compromising between two flagship proposals that went into the decadal: The 4-meter HabEx proposal and LUVOIR, which was proposed as 8-meter and 15-meter configurations. This flagship mission would cap out at $11 billion by way of the primary 5 years of operation, with a launch within the early 2040s.

The subsequent objects on the wishlist are each X-ray and far-infrared observatories, which might function successors to Chandra and Herschel, respectively. These observatories correspond to the Lynx and Origins mission ideas, really helpful to the tune of $3–5 billion.

Ground-based Astronomy

In phrases of ground-based observatories, the report offers excessive precedence to each the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) and the Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT), which it recommends be part of forces because the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) venture. Curiously, although the report cites each telescopes as important, it additionally mentions that the success of the ELT program hinges on the completion of “at least one” of those telescopes. The GMT can be primarily based in Chile, and the TMT can be constructed on both Mauna Kea, Hawai’i, or on La Palma, Spain.

The NSF and DOE can even pursue a venture referred to as Cosmic Microwave Background Stage 4. This observatory will perform a 7-year sky survey from the South Pole within the 30-270 GHz vary in tandem with all-sky surveys carried out from the Atacama desert in Chile, to characterize the cosmic microwave background, the afterglow remnant that also shines from 380,000 years after the Big Bang.

The report additionally cites the necessity for a next-generation Very Large Array (ngVLA) for radio astronomy, although it mentions that at this level, the venture is “immature in its development.” The 263-dish array, which is able to unfold throughout North America, won’t break floor till about 2030.

Photos of LIGO facilities
LIGO’s two amenities: LIGO Livingston in Louisiana, and LIGO Hanford in Washington State.
Dave Dickinson

The survey recommends continued funding within the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), together with preparations for a next-generation facility. And the report advocates additional research of high-energy neutrinos, as a part of the multi-messenger theme. To this finish, the IceCube-Generation 2 Neutrino Observatory would supersede Ice Cube within the Antarctic, with a functionality to resolve discrete sources and detect neutrinos at greater energies.

NASA’s highest precedence is its space-based skill to catch fleeting occasions of all types as they occur, which requires simultaneous detections of phenomena throughout a number of wavelengths, in addition to by way of neutrinos and gravitational-waves. To this finish, the report recommends the agency pursue one “probe” mission per decade, with a value cap of $1.5 billion, filling the hole between smaller “explorer” missions and large flagships.

The report additionally cites a necessity to extend the National Science Foundation’s funding to make sure foundations for future astronomical analysis, together with every little thing from assist for early-career scientists to storage of the torrent of astronomical knowledge. To this finish, the report recommends NSF fund a further $16.5 million (a rise of 30%) in grants for particular person researchers by 2028.

Of course, there are some cuts and issues that may come to go because of the survey: One prime instance is the SOFIA flying infrared observatory, which NASA has mentioned will stop operations by 2023; the report endorses that call.

Finally, the decadal survey notes that the rise of satellite tv for pc megaconstellations, together with SpaceX’s Starlink, won’t solely exponentially enhance the variety of objects in low-Earth orbit however can even severely impression and degrade the capabilities of all-sky surveys except rules are carried out.

Vera Rubin mirror under construction
The mirror for the Vera C. Rubin telescope (then referred to as the LSST) within the Mirror Lab on the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Dave Dickinson

As the seventh in a sequence of decadal surveys that has guided the event of NASA’s Great Observatories, this report captures a singular snapshot and imaginative and prescient of the way forward for the sphere, not solely its thrilling potential for discoveries, but in addition the backdrop of societal and cultural change below which exploration of the cosmos happens.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Shopping Cart