Your Thoughts on the Next 10 Years of Astronomy & Astrophysics

By Julianne Dalcanton | March 3, 2009 1:43 am

As Daniel nicely outlined below, the US astronomical community is currently going through its decadal exercise in navalnavel gazing. The decadal review process assesses the state of the field, figures out where best to invest limited resources to maximize the scientific return, and creates a report that lays out the scientific and technical priorities for the coming decade. This document becomes close to holy writ for funding agencies, who use it as a roadmap for deciding which facilities deserve funding. The decadal reports for astronomy have served us well in political circles, since they offer clear prioritization based on community-wide input, rather that a long list of projects clamoring for support. (The rumor is that other scientific fields don’t do quite so well at prioritization during similar exercises, perhaps because they lack astronomers’ long reliance on shared facilities, which forces us to practice playing well with others on a regular basis).

Right now the review process is evaluating key areas where we think substantial scientific progress can be made in the next 10 years, either with existing facilities, or with new ones. We’ve also been tasked with identifying areas with unusual “discovery potential”. This work is being done by various “Science Frontiers Panels“, after community input in the form of white papers (see the list here) and town hall meetings. Our reports then go to the “Program Prioritization Panels“, who then start the hard work of ranking the various missions, facilities, and projects, in light of the priorities identified by the SFP and the “Infrastructure and State of the Profession Study Groups“. (Horrific org chart can be found here.)

So, given that the SFP’s are encouraged to gather input from the community, I am throwing open to the floor to your thoughts on the important scientific opportunities in astronomy and astrophysics during the next 10 years. I’ll do my best to get the info to the relevant committees, particularly if you tag your suggestions with your preferred subcommittee:

  • Planetary Systems and Star Formation
  • Stars and Stellar Evolution
  • The Galactic Neighborhood
  • Galaxies Through Cosmic Time
  • Cosmology and Fundamental Physics

It would also be helpful to let us know whether you’re a professional astronomer, physicist, or interested bystander. Please use pseudonyms if you’d like to be anonymous, so that we can follow the thread of discussion more easily.

There’s also a nice Facebook discussion group hashing things out here. Feel free to join in either venue.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space
MORE ABOUT: Astro2010
  • Bruce the Canuck

    Why isn’t the Terrestrial Planet Finder / Darwin a higher priority? It’s almost meaning of life stuff. The only reason I can think of is that it might be heavier on technology than post-analysis, not producing enough long-chewtime fodder for post docs.

    But for science-geek outsiders like myself, I just can’t believe it was canceled with so little protest from astronomers. The TPF is almost as good as an interstellar probe, which I won’t even see launched in my lifetime. What gives?

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    Ditto on TPF- a telescope that can resolve a terrestrial planet, at least in the IR, would be fundamental for increasing data on terrestrial planets beyond n=4.

  • Fermi-Walker Public Transport

    A TPF would also be very useful in other areas of astronomy where one needs high contrast and superb resolution. For example, I recall there was a paper a few years back on how the TPF would be very useful for studying the nuclei of active galaxies.

  • andy.s

    the US astronomical community is currently going through its decadal exercise in naval gazing.

    They’re watching battleships? Is that kind of like trainspotting?

    (Bwah! Fixed it… –JD)

  • http://astroras.wordpress.com Astroras

    As an admirer of NASA but also a bewildered bystander, I wonder if it could find it’s greatest cost effective rewards by concentrating on smaller things.
    Here are two:

    1) Ensure all future visits to the Outer planets are designed to be capable of doing astrometry of nearby stars. The huge increases in baseline will be particularly useful in determining accurate distances to the Cepheid variables and thence calibrate distance to the rest of the Universe. Then binary star observations could be used to construct a better 3-D model of the nearlby stars. Many new minor planets and comets will be spotted, traced and understood better, too.

    2) Using two of ESA’s ATVs (1st for crew/ spares 2nd to power the trip and hold position) piggybacked with ion engines to push the Hubble telescope up to a safe orbit at the L2 point on the far side of the Moon with the JWT. [It will take years but the cost will be trivial next to the cost of a 2.5 metre class telescope in or around the Moon] The servicing of the telescopes would provide a tangible raison d’ĂȘtre for a manned Moonbase in the public eye.

    Good luck!

  • http://www.wellsj.com Jason Wells

    During one of the recent budget cycles I was astounded to see the Voyager probes were even being considered for a cut. For quite awhile now they’re all we’ve got at that distance and position in space. I understand they’re 31 years old but science that old is still indispensable if it is unique, and it is.

    I’d like to see the ‘Planetary Systems and Star Formation’ and ‘Stars and Stellar Evolution’ groups come up with either reasons to keep them or a good replacement. Being without that knowledge just isn’t right.

    Interested bystander…whose father honestly believed the stars were painted on an ice sphere surrounding our solar system. The guy built nuclear submarines and taught me physics too. I just can’t fathom that!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Here are my own personal priorities for what I’d like to get from astrophysics over the next decade, more or less ranked from highest on down, although I’m only listing the ones that are pretty high to me.

    1. Beat on the CMB in every possible way — power spectrum, polarization, non-Gaussianities, etc. — to learn as much as possible about the primordial perturbations.

    2. Understand the distribution and dynamics of dark matter much more precisely than we do now, both from the observational side and from the theory/simulation side. Also detect the dark matter, directly or indirectly, if that’s within the purview here.

    3. Discover gravitational waves and put them to use. (Might be higher if I thought LISA was in this time window.)

    4. Beat on the distribution and evolution of large-scale structure, as above. Redshift surveys, weak lensing, what have you.

    5. Map the expansion history. I suspect LambdaCDM will continue to fit, but it would big big news if not.

    Obviously these are my personal favorites, I’m not pretending to be fairly prioritizing for the community. That’s for smarter people than me.

  • http://www.wellsj.com Jason Wells

    While we’re making a wish list, could ‘Cosmology and Fundamental Physics’ simply say they support and need the efforts of places like LHC and Fermilab? The funding cuts to high energy physics surprised me too and it’d be nice if a wider community rallied behind them when their existence is threatened.

  • Shantanu

    Some more in addition to hose added by Sean (which are also pretty high to me)

    o Confirm or rule out Pioneer anomaly through a dedicated experiment
    o Test of GR in every possible parameter space as outlined in Figure 18 of 0806.1531
    o Look for new sources of TeV gamma rays and put them to use.
    o Discover cosmic neutrinos and put them to use.
    o Try to detect cosmic neutrino background.
    o Try to understand the diversity and inter-connection between GRBs, pulsars, magnetars and
    other incarnation of neutron stars.
    o Try to find evidence for strange quark stars.

  • http://whenindoubtdo.blogspot.com/ Eugene

    What I like to see is more cross-talk between cosmologists/particle physicists and astronomers (being the former and having a degree that says I am the latter, like Sean I might add). So here is my list :

    (1) Stellar IMF : 50+ years since Salpeter and we still have no clue. We don’t even have a complete census (granted that’s hard). But I am thinking that this is something cosmologists can contribute, and should be interested in. For example, something that I am interested in : what is the universality of the IMF across redshift space? Galaxy space? It might be “messy” astrophysics, but there are a lot of cosmological data (say from SDSS) that can help here.

    (2) CMB : What Sean said.

    (3) Gravity Waves : One of my favourite white paper from the Decadal Survey is the one written by Kristen Menou and Dan (Holz) et al on more cross-talk between those who do EM astronomy and those who do GW. What I like to see is also more cross talk between GW people and CMB people — there are a lot of data analysis techniques from the latter than those in the former will find very useful.

    (4) Dark Matter : DM physics is sexy. Every weird anomaly in astrophysics observations have some DM explanation. I am willing to bet my pizza slice that most of them have some astrophysics explanation. No less mundane and interesting …. but somehow people care less about it. I think there is something to be gain from more cross talk. There might be some nuggets here if we look hard enough.

    (5) Cosmological Constant : count me in as one of those who are less optimistic about finding dw/dz, even with JDEM. My own gut though says that DE, if it is not just a constant, gotta have some local astrophysics secondary effects (it’s just weird to have 100% smooth energy). But I think we (royal we, referring to cosmologists) should look hard at smaller stuff….

    (disclaimer : I don’t like pizza that much)

  • http://www.GoHover.com Eric Goldstein

    I also want to see the Terrestrial Planet Finder (or an equivalent instrument) rise to the top of the priority list. I think that if the general tax-paying public could be educated on the options in astronomy, this is what they’d want their money spent on, if they were willing to have their money spent on astronomy at all. It is great to study dark matter, gravity waves, etc, and I do understand that you can make an argument for why studying these subjects can help us answer fundamental questions, but what I want to know, and what I think the vast majority of the general public wants to know, is whether there is life elsewhere, and I see the TPF as the best hope astronomy has for answering that question.

    PS: looking for asteroids that could impact Earth is probably even more important to the general public. In any case, you’re talking about the taxpayer’s money, maybe you should think about what would be important to them.

  • http://opines.mythusmage.com Alan Kellogg

    Cosmology and Basic Physics:

    A study of mass engendered space-time curvature with the aim of applying the findings to studies of objects and phenomena both inside and outside the Solar System. Most especially towards applying the knowledge so gained to a study of the Solar System as a set of mass/space-time interactions*.

    *There’s probably a better sound-bite for it, but that’s the only thing I could come up with when I wrote this comment.

  • $perScience

    All, now, as you think about prioritization, how would it change your lists if TPF were, say, $6B and meant you could not launch LISA for another 15 years? Or anything else because it decimates teh SMEX/MIDEX mission lines? Is it better to have a a broader mix of smalelr missions or the one (and we can only afford 1 per decade) behemoth with super-ambitious science. That’s the crux, and a real challenge to tease apart the right mix of big and small missions with the right divesity of science scope and goals.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Well, if we must choose, I’d say go for answering the most and least reductionistic sorts of questions. Fund missions that probe the boundaries of HEP, looking for imprints of fundamental physics in the heavens, e.g. in the CMB and primordial gravity waves. Also fund missions that might answer the question of whether or not, given conditions that can support complex chemistry, have homeostatic and autopoietic systems arisen elsewhere in the cosmos, and, if so, is such complexity inevitable?

  • Bruce the Canuck

    >would it change your lists if TPF were, say, $6B and meant you could not launch LISA for another 15 years?

    No, because if TPF shows earth-like worlds around nearby stars it would motivate higher astronomy and space science funding like nothing else would. In fact for that reason it should be competing with mars and manned programs for funding, given that those programs are often justified as “motivators”. $6b is peanuts compared to mars/manned programs.

    Imagine that TPF finds earth-size worlds around a dozen nearby stars, and at least one is shown to possibly have life based on its IR signature. Imagine the pressure that’d result to develop better TPF’s, to learn more, to launch near-interstellar probes, or even actul interstellar probes. It would motivate generations of higher funding, not just decades.

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    “$6b is peanuts compared to mars/manned programs.”

    It is twelve times the cost of the last Mars lander.

    While I think a TPF type mission would be awesome, it might be prudent to wait for Kepler results so that we get a better understanding of what it is that we’re trying to image…

  • Bruce the Canuck

    Sorry, I meant in comparison to the manned programs, which I think TPF should be set against. Many people are afraid, or claim to be, cutting back on the manned programs would reduce the public’s support of space science. I believe that TPF has the potential to cause a permanent increase in public interest and support.

  • Sam Gralla

    You will get all of the bottom 3 with LISA.

    # The Galactic Neighborhood
    # Galaxies Through Cosmic Time
    # Cosmology and Fundamental Physics

  • Bruce the Canuck

    Seems like it boils down to Cosmology/Physics vs planet hunting.

  • http://mirror2image.wordpress.com Serge

    Interested bystander here.
    I vote for Cosmology and Fundamental Physics. It have biggest social impact in IMHO. Nontrivial advances in ToE/Quantum Gravity/Physics beyond standard model can revive interest to science and philosophy of science.

  • Charon

    UV astronomy: even if SM4 goes, there’s a looming gap after STIS and COS are no longer operational. We can’t ignore a part of the spectrum that contains a whole lot of the interesting atomic line transitions. The GALEX survey has allowed us to target better as well, obviating some of the extinction problems that plague the UV. This is relevant for Galaxies Through Cosmic Time (e.g., figuring out AGN structure) and Cosmology and Fundamental Physics (e.g., mapping IGM structure).

    I second the cosmic neutrino background idea. This should give us a great idea of the very early (z>>3000) universe and possibly large-scale structure. A great opportunity to connect particle physics, solid-state physics (detectors), and astronomy. Photons are great, but the time is coming to expand astronomy beyond them. (Gravity waves are important too, of course). Cosmology and Fundamental Physics.

    Search for life on the outer moons of our solar system. Absolutely we need to get/keep the public interested in what we’re doing, but manned spaceflight is such a horrible way of doing that. Search for other life, very important. Planetary Systems and Star Formation.

    High-redshift 21-cm observations – looking into the dark ages. Continue support for things like MWA, and the eventual SKA. Possibly a larger, darker version on the Moon (such a telescope presumably wouldn’t have nearly as many problems with Moon dust as optical/UV/IR). Direct observation of H reionization. Galaxies Through Cosmic Time, Cosmology and Fundamental Physics.

    Professional astronomer.

  • mikey777

    My fundemental questions

    If a source exists which produces all matter, what would the density
    of that source energy have to be to produce i.e. dark matter,which
    I conceive is really i.e. light matter which binds and impells all
    matter?

    Given that a source exists which brings matter into existence, I would
    like to examine the possibility of not a localized big bang but rather,
    a universal big bang consisting of quadrillions of big bangs, like
    cyclonic clash of air massess produce, with, (vortices within vortices)
    just a thought!

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