Category: Space

Why We Need the James Webb Space Telescope

By Julianne Dalcanton | July 7, 2011 8:38 am

Over the last 24 hours, the astronomy community has begun facing the possible cancellation of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).  The House Appropriations Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee has recommended: “$4.5 billion for NASA Science programs, which is $431 million below last year’s level. The bill also terminates funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, which is billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management.”  This is not the end of the game for JWST, as many other branches of government have yet to weigh in, but it’s not good news.

Looking at it from the public’s view, sure, cutting projects that are “billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management” sounds like a pretty reasonable action.  But I’d like to try to take a few minutes to explain why it’s not as simple as the committee would like you to believe.

First and foremost, in many fields of astronomy we are rapidly approaching the limit of what can be done scientifically without JWST.  I recently finished teaching a graduate class on extragalactic astronomy, and I can’t tell you the number of times where I brought the students up to speed on the state of a field, and then had to say “If we’re going to push this to the next level, we need JWST”.  To demonstrate this, the plot below shows the brightness (i.e., flux) of an astronomical point source that can be detected with different telescopes in a fixed amount of time, as a function of the wavelength of light (along with a typical galaxy spectrum).  The magenta points show that JWST is hundreds of times more sensitive than anything out there.  In terms of scientific impact, this is like the difference between walking (4 miles/hr) and flying (400 miles/hr) for your ability to explore terrain on the Earth.  This is not to mention the drastic increase in the angular resolution of JWST compared to any other telescope on that plot — JWST will be able to see fine-scale structure that has never been seen at these wavelengths.

Moreover, JWST will blow through limits that lie at some of the most exciting areas of astronomy, with some of the widest public appeal, including high redshift galaxies and extrasolar planets.  The public rightfully adores Hubble for expanding our view of the universe, but it’s not going to last forever.  (Given funding constraints, the most likely fate for Hubble is the same as your 20 year old Toyota Tercel — it gets you where you’re going, but at some point you stop paying the money to fix the heater, repair the cracked windshield, and deal with the oil leak, and accept that sooner or later you’re going to be stranded on the side of the highway.)  When Hubble expires — and it will within a decade or less — where is the system that will expand upon the wonders that Hubble revealed?  Even Milky Jay knows that JWST is the future.

The demise of JWST would be a huge blow to american space-based astronomy as well.  On the ground, the US has ceded much of its historical primacy to the Europeans.  If JWST were cancelled, it would be a heavy blow to the US dominance in running true space-based observatories.  NASA will continue to run “experiments” in space — i.e., targeted smaller missions focused on limited scientific goals, but they will be giving up their unique place in creating flagship facilities that literally anyone can potentially use.  The impact of Hubble came in large part because it wasn’t a specific experiment for one particular problem.  It has broad capabilities, that were kept up to date with servicing missions, but using those capabilities was then essentially “crowd-sourced” to the entire world.  Through on-going rigorous, and frankly brutal, evaluations of scientific proposals, the community identifies the single most important scientific questions to be addressed by Hubble.  This process is carried out every. single. year., making sure that Hubble gets the most bang for the buck.  The same process also applied to NASA’s other “flagship” missions (e.g., Chandra, Spitzer), focused on other wavelengths, but these facilities too are rapidly running out of time.

To see what the loss of JWST would mean, look at the following chart of NASA missions.  JWST is the only flagship observatory coming up.  If we lose it, the person with the next great idea loses the chance to try it out.

So yes, JWST has cost more than was planned for.  But the majority of the cost is now “sunk costs”, and a huge fraction of the telescope and instruments actually exist.  This is not just a hole that people have been shoveling money into, and not getting anything for — useful stuff is actually built!  And working!   I would of course prefer that JWST launched on time and under budget, but, given how close we are to the end, I much prefer to go for it.  Canceling JWST is not going to usher in a golden age of other space-based science opportunities (the “crowding out theory”, where once the shade of JWST is gone, a thousand flowers will bloom).  The money will simply be gone from space-based astronomy, and instead of a single tree we can all climb, there will be some smaller pieces of shrubbery.

So to close, I’d like to leave with you with one of the finest bits of advocacy for JWST around.

(edit: Which I now realize Risa just posted! She has “how to contact your legislator” information, which is the single most important thing you can do at this point.)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Politics, Space, Top Posts

Gravity, Working As Usual

By Julianne Dalcanton | March 31, 2011 10:43 pm

I am in absolutely no position to judge the technical execution of this work, but a group has posted a possible solution to the “Pioneer Anomaly” on the Physics/Astronomy ArXiV server (http://xxx.lanl.gov/abs/1103.5222).

For those who haven’t been following along at home, there appear to be subtle unexpected Sun-ward accelerations (i.e. higher than expected decelerations) seen in the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft while leaving the Solar System. Sean posted an earlier discussion of the anomaly and a possible reported solution that does not involve modifying gravity. However, this latest paper is by a different group, and posits that reflections within the spacecraft are enough to explain the discrepancies. There’s a nicer write-up than this one at the Technology Review Physics ArXiV blog.

FYI, it was posted a few days ago, and is not an April Fool’s posting.

Also FYI, my kids just got passports, and did you know that there’s an image of Pioneer 10 on the inside back cover? Beamjockey did some nice sleuthing a few years back and dug up the source image!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: arxiv, Science, Space

The golden age (is ending)

By Daniel Holz | October 21, 2010 1:45 pm

As has been oft remarked on this blog, we are in a golden age of astrophysics and cosmology. The data is pouring down from the heavens, in large part from 14 state-of-the-art NASA space telescopes. However, this cornucopia of astronomy is about to come to a crashing stop. We are at the high-water mark, and the next few years are going to see a rapid decline in the number of observatories in space. In five years most, if not all, of these telescopes will be defunct (WMAP is already in the graveyard), and it’s not clear what will be replacing them. This is brought into startling focus by the following plot:
NASA space missions
The dotted line shows “today”. In a few years, the only significant US space observatory may be the James Webb Space Telescope (assuming it’s on budget and on time, neither of which are to be taken for granted). The reasons for the current “bubble” in resources, and the impending crash, are myriad and complex. These missions take many years, if not multiple decades, to plan and execute, and we are currently reaping the harvest of ancient boom times. But one aspect subtly implied by this graph is the impact of JWST on space funding. The cost of this mission is now over $5 billion, and continues to rise. Very optimistically, the mission will be in space in 2014, and will continue to consume major developmental resources until then. In an era of fiscal austerity, it is difficult to imagine that the immense ongoing cost of JWST leaves room for much else to be done. The community has gone through the painful exercise of winnowing down its “wish list” to a few key, high-impact missions (as detailed by Julianne here, here, and here; my summary here). It is not immediately apparent that even this fairly “modest” list is attainable given current budget realities. Astronomical data from space over the next decade will pale in comparison to the previous one. We are at a unique moment in the history of space astronomy; it is highly unlikely that we will have fourteen major space astrophysics missions flying again within our lifetimes. We need to make the most of what we have, while we still have it.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Space

The last countdown

By Daniel Holz | September 2, 2010 9:22 am

There is a struggle going on for NASA’s soul. Is NASA all about sending human beings into space? Or is NASA about elucidating the secrets of the cosmos? The former is, of course, best embodied by the Apollo missions: pure, unadulterated rocket science. The latter is probably best associated with the Hubble space telescope (although NASA’s contribution to our understanding of the Universe goes far beyond Hubble). Of course, spacewalks and science are not mutually exclusive (as Hubble has demonstrated). But a singleminded focus on the former has led to significant weakening of the latter.

Space shuttle launchAt present, it looks like there will be two more space shuttle launches. That’s it. Within a year, our nation will no longer have the capability to launch humans into space. For some this is a sure sign that America is sliding into mediocrity. Both the first and the last man to step on the Moon testified before Congress last May, speaking out against the Obama plan to shut down the Constellation program (video). Their testimony was reminiscent of a past age, where we proved our worth by beating the Russians to the Moon, and the natural next step is to now prove our worth by beating the Chinese to the Red Planet. The jingoistic associations are unsettling, and these arguments gloss over the staggering costs involved. To quote none other than Neil Armstrong: “If the leadership we have acquired through our investment is allowed simply to fade away, other nations will surely step in where we have faltered. I do not believe that this would be in our best interests.”

It is certainly amazing that we’ve had continuous human “inhabitants” in low-Earth orbit. Rocket science is, indeed, rocket science, and this should never be taken for granted. Launching people into orbit is a massive endeavor, and having them survive in the incredibly inhospitable environment of space is even more impressive. But the simple truth is that the contributions to basic science from the space station have been entirely negligible (especially in comparison with the staggering costs). Furthermore, I would argue that the Hubble space telescope has done significantly more to awe and inspire the world than the International Space Station.

A year ago we discussed an Academy report which criticized the direction of the manned space program, and recommended profound changes. Subsequently the Academy released a separate report sharply criticizing the scientific underpinning of NASA, and recommending similar changes. Two months ago the Obama administration outlined a new vision for NASA, in line with these reports, including the cancellation of the Constellation program (which was the new and improved version of the Apollo program). Given the immense sums of money involved, especially to influential states such as Florida and Texas, Congress has taken the liberty of trying to do an end-run around the White House, and fund Constellation despite the lack of a request for funding. In a triumph of politics over common-sense, money will be poured into building more rockets, rather than funding a broad portfolio of technological development (including better ways to get humans into orbit and beyond) and basic research (including unmanned probes and satellites elucidating the mysteries of the Universe). In the latest salvo, fourteen Nobel laureates, and a few astronauts for good measure, issued an open letter supporting Obama’s strategy, and advising Congress against throwing all of NASA’s eggs in the “heavy lift rocket” basket.

One thing is clear: for better or worse, the shuttle program is at an end. There is no clear successor, and it will likely be many years before another astronaut is launched into orbit by the United States. If you want to experience the thrill of sending humans into space (and it is an incredible, indescribable rush), you’d better hustle on down to the Kennedy Space Flight Center. The next-to-last launch is currently scheduled for November 1, 2010.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Politics, Space, Top Posts

The Next 10 Years of Exoplanets

By Julianne Dalcanton | August 19, 2010 11:51 am

The recent US Decadal Survey (Astro2010) contains a conundrum.

As part of the report, the Decadal Survey committee identified three key “scientific objectives” on which they felt the community should focus. These were:

  1. “Cosmic Dawn: Searching for the First Stars, Galaxies, and Black Holes”
  2. “New Worlds: Seeking Nearby, Habitable Planets”
  3. “Physics of the Universe: Understanding Scientific Principles

(For the record, I think this is a completely reasonable list, filled with the kinds of things that make splashy magazine covers. It’s arguably tilted a bit far from more traditional but critically important aspects of astronomy — for example, we don’t actually know how stars form, or how they explode, and yet the only bit of stellar physics that’s covered under this list is the fossil record of the absolute lowest metallicity stars. However, the committee had to narrow things down, and these are certainly the most “sellable” aspects of our field, as far as congressional committees and the general public is concerned.)

Now, these key questions are supposed to be partial guides to the project prioritization that the committee carried out. And yet, when you look at the list of recommended space- and ground-based investments, there really is precious little that is deeply connected to #2. As many have commented here and elsewhere, where is the investment in exoplanets?

While I agree it appears to be a glaring conflict, I think it’s actually completely sensible. The search for extrasolar planets is by far the hottest new area of astronomy. However, because it’s so new, the scientific landscape is wide open and barely explored. Is the most interesting question the mass function and radial distribution of planets? Are the subset of habitable planets the most compelling targets? Is the study of atmospheres and exoplanet weather the big breakthrough issue? What about the theory of stability of planetary systems? Do we know the physics controlling how all these planetary systems form? Every single one of these questions is awesome, but it would be nuts to take bets now on a billion dollar flagship facility dedicated to just one of these topics.

I’m guessing that what the committee did was essentially try to earmark some of the explorer-class space and ground missions for exoplanets. They made exoplanets an unambiguous scientific priority, and then they did their best to protect pots of money for faster timescale moderate-sized experiments (2nd ranked for both ground and space). Thus, when an exoplanet mission is proposed for an Explorer satellite, they get the huge boost of saying that their satellite will help answer one of the key questions from the Decadal Survey. (Edit: They also called out for investment in “New Worlds Technology” (i.e., things like a steerable sunshade) that would reduce the price of a mission to study habitable planets in the future, putting an exoplanet-optimized flagship mission at a fundable price point in time for the next decadal survey.) This strategy is smart — we’ve got Kepler up right now, JWST in the nearish future, and on-going ground-based work across the world. The field is evolving so rapidly, that it’s almost certainly better that the experimental response be kept as nimble as possible. So, reading the tea leaves, I think exoplanets did just fine in this report.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science, Space

The Next Decade of US Ground Based Astronomy

By Julianne Dalcanton | August 13, 2010 3:27 pm

On to the ground-based (i.e. NSF funded) recommendations (for large, new projects — i.e., not including on-going investments in ALMA; there are a number of interesting medium scale projects recommended, but I probably won’t have time to get to them).

First priority was the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) — a survey for a multi-color, multi-cadence survey of the sky with an 8m class telescope. As my colleague and LSST Project Scientist Zeljko Ivezic puts it, “LSST will make a movie of the sky,” which, you have to admit, is pretty cool. When you think about discovery space in astronomy, the largest gains come when you move into new regimes. We’ve largely run out of new wavelength regimes, but the time-variable regime has not yet been explored in a large scale systematic way (although PanSTARRS and the Los Cumbres Observatory will certainly be making headway). In addition, the co-adds of all the epochs will produce an 8m telescope version of the 2.5m Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) imaging, which is a good thing. All data is non-proprietary, and can be used by anyone.

Second priority is a “Mid-Scale Innovations Program” — basically, a ground-based equivalent of the NASA Explorer program. The decadal survey committee reviewed a wealth of scientifically compelling medium size projects. These don’t rise to the level of building giant new facilities, and are typically seeking funding for an instrument and a decidated multi-year survey on existing facilities. The report recommends that there be a review and funding mechanism for such projects, which have the capability of responding nimbly to scientific and technological changes.

Third priority is contributing to the development of a 30m class ground-based optical/nearIR telescope (a “Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope”; GSMT). Such a telescope would be essential for carrying out spectroscopy of the sources found at the limits of 8m-class telescope imaging; basically, if you detect a source in an image, when you want spectra, you’re spreading the light over much larger areas, requiring bigger apertures to reach the same signal-to-noise as when all the wavelengths are being imaged together. There are currently 2 large US programs that are well underway (TMT and GMT), using private funding. For these programs to have enough money to be built and operated, an investment of Federal money is required. This money would also guarantee some degree of access for the larger US community, but probably significantly less than 50%. The report recommends that involvement should be at least a 25% share. However, they argue that there is only money enough to invest in one, and the community had better pick one as soon as possible, rather than letting both go forward.

The fourth priority is participation in the “Atmospheric Cerenkov Telescope Array” (ACTA), to detect and characterize the highest energy cosmic rays. Recent years have seen the detection of TeV cosmic rays, which places strong constraints on particle acceleration at the highest energy scales; a new array would greatly expand the chances of fully understanding the origin of these high energy events. Rather than funding a separate US initiative, however, the report recommends joining into an existing European project (CTA), in spite of the fact that the US would be a minor partner.

Reactions to the Ground-Based Recommendations:

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the drop in the GSMT from (1) its prioritization in the previous report, and (2) its prioritization in the actual optical/IR subcommittee (See Table B.1). The justification was that LSST was a much lower risk in terms of cost and technology, and, as in the space recommendations, pragmatism ruled the day. The committee was quite strong in their support for GSMT as a project, and pointed out that the combination with LSST is highly synergistic — LSST provides the targets, and GSMT tells you what they are. However, the pie was simply not big enough to give everyone a slice. In addition, if you can only dish out one slice of pie, you want it to feed the most number of people — LSST made a strong case that a much larger fraction of the US community could make use of the data.

Personally, I’m very sympathetic to this view. There are scientific advances that come because you have new facilities pushing into new territory, and GSMT has this in spades. However, there are also scientific advances that come about because you have the largest number of very clever brains thinking about how to exploit a given data set. Taking SDSS as a model, a ridiculously large fraction of the ridiculously large number of SDSS-related papers had absolutely nothing to do with anything in the “black book” of science justifications used to obtain funding for SDSS. You take good data, you let smart people work with it, and you’ll get science you never anticipated. I’m optimistic that LSST could work the same way, with the caveat that the scientific impact may well be blunted without a wide scale investment in spectroscopy (which SDSS had, and which LSST lacks). I very much hope that a 30m gets built, but not to the point where I’d be comfortable leveraging all public large ground-based investment over the next 10 years for a 25% share of a telescope. (Full disclosure: I am not at an institution that would have private 30m access, and am at one that has made early and ongoing investments in LSST. So, my perspective is undoubtedly shaped somewhat by viewing GSMT projects as a potential “outside” user. I do my best to be fair, but I’ve pretty much shaped my scientific research around the premise that I won’t have exclusive access to large aperture telescopes.)

I am also really pleased to see the “Mid-Scale Innovations” recommendation. I think this is a smart way to make sure we can take advantage of rapidly changing fields. When something like dark energy or extrasolar planets shows up on the scene, it’s great to have a mechanism in place to take advantage of new opportunities. In addition, it’s a smart way to skim the low hanging fruit, so that larger missions have a better understanding of what the scientific requirements really are — for example, you’d design a very different dark energy mission if you know that w is nearly equal to -1, than if you had no idea of its value.

The other noticeable lack here is a call for US participation in the Square Kilometer Array. (The panel did recommend some radio projects in the medium scale category.) However, if you look at Figure 4-8 (which I found fascinating and surprising) fewer than 10% of the members in the American Astronomical Society (ASS) categorize themselves as “Observational Radio” astronomers. I’d presume this would grow in response to investment in ALMA, but the community is clearly not enormous.

So, my take on the ground-based recommendations, is that they did pretty well at making hard choices. And the choices were indeed hard, and are going to be rightfully hard to swallow in many cases.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science, Space

The Next Decade of US Space Astronomy

By Julianne Dalcanton | August 13, 2010 11:38 am

So, the Decadal Survey (“Astro2010″) results are out. I missed the webcast (which I heard was of pretty sketchy quality), but read Roger Blandford’s slides, and have skimmed or read a reasonable fraction of the preliminary report. Here’s my summary and first reactions, broken down by regime. Steinn has also been blogging a running commentary of his reactions here.

Space Missions:

The top recommendation for a space mission is “WFIRST” — basically a 1.5m wide-field IR imager in space, with low-resolution spectroscopy capabilities. This concept is the latest realization of what was previously known as “JDEM” (for “Joint Dark Energy Mission”, which itself was an expanded and reconstructed version of “SNAP”, the Supernova (SN) Acceleration Probe). The goal would be to use some combination of high redshift SNe, baryon acoustic oscillations (BAO), and weak lensing to constrain the parameters of dark energy. The committee recommended that the mission allow for a general observer (GO) program (thank goodness) and have a component dedicated to exoplanet discovery through microlensing (really? not really something I follow, but this isn’t something I’ve heard much about. UPDATE: from the comments, Andy Gould has a white paper pointing out that the weak lensing requirements are essentially identical to what’s needed for a microlensing-based planet search. Basically, you get it for free if you decide to pursue weak lensing. However, they did not take Andy’s recommendation that the dark energy mission not pursue 3 independent techniques in one satellite.).

The next recommendation is for a mixed portfolio of smaller satellite missions. These “Explorer”-class missions have historically been hugely successful — WMAP, GALEX, etc — but have been squeezed out recently by funding limitations and pressure from flagship mission development (JWST) and operations.

The third recommendation is for continued development of LISA, an orbiting interferometric gravitational wave detector. LISA is a really nifty project — one that I was not inately that interested in, but that became more and more compelling the more I learned about it. Co-blogger Daniel has thought a lot about LISA, and maybe we can get him to talk some more about it.

Reactions to the Space Recommendations:

Overall: These were hard choices, and reading the report, it’s clear that a huge amount of weight was given to cost, feasibility, and competitiveness. IXO, the next generation flagship X-ray mission, dropped compared to its previous ranking, largely because the committee found it to be technologically and financially risky (“The Survey Committee also found IXO technologies to be too immature at present for accurate cost and risk assessment”). They instead flagged IXO as ripe for money for “technological development”, so that it’s ready to go for the next report. The Space Interferometry Mission (SIM, or SIMlite) dropped completely out, in large part due to cost vs scientific return.

The real bummer about these recommendations is that entire subfields of US astronomy are pretty much shut out of the only environment where they can operate. X-ray, UV, and high-resolution astronomy (outside of IR and radio) are fundamentally space-based enterprises, and when Chandra and HST shut down, there will be nothing left, and nothing in the pipeline for a decade or more. The good times are continuing to role if you’re an infrared astronomer — (considering the series of Spitzer, WISE, JWST, and now WFIRST), but entire communities are going to be gutted. I do think that IXO will eventually get a start, because it’s a strong mission, but are there going to be any X-ray astronomers left when it starts getting data?

WFIRST: It will be interesting to see how this plays out, because two of the three dark energy techniques are going to making a fair bit of progress over the next decade, even without this mission — two of the three new gigundo Hubble Multicycle Treasury programs will have a significant high-redshift SN component, and ground-based BAO surveys like BigBOSS are viable candidates for completion within a 10yr timescale. I’m sure discovery space will be left, but it will be interesting to see where we are in 10 years. There is also a highly ranked ESA mission with very similar capabilities. The only way it makes sense to go forward with WFIRST is if the projects somehow merge.

Explorer Missions: There will definitely be broad community support for this recommendation. For certain wavelength regimes, this will be the only game in town. UV astronomers can probably make some real progress here, because there are huge gains that can be made by increases in detector efficiency, rather than by larger apertures, which are expensive to build and launch. High-resolution questions can’t be addressed through the Explorer program, since you really need large baselines that are inaccessible at this cost limit (large baseline = big mirrors or interferometry = expensive). Not sure what can be done in the X-ray, but hard to go from Chandra or XMM down to what’s available through this approach.

LISA: I think LISA is pretty cool. I would have thought that the technological challenges for LISA are comparable to those that IXO faces, but I’ll sensibly assume that the committee spent infinitely more time evaluating this issue than I have. Of the two, LISA probably has more pure discovery space potential. We at least know something about x-rays from space, but we know close to nothing about gravitational radiation from space.

Ok, I gotta try to do some actually science today before I tackle the rest of the recommendations…more later

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science, Space

The Next 10 Years of Astronomy

By Julianne Dalcanton | August 12, 2010 12:20 pm

The US astronomical community is anxiously awaiting tomorrow’s press conference on the release of the “Astro2010 Decadal Survey”. Now, the astronomical community has press releases all the time, but almost all are about communicating scientific results or images to the general public. Tomorrow’s is different. What we learn will shape the next ten years of investment in astronomical infrastructure, and set the course of much of scientific innovation in the ten years after that.

For close to half a century, the astronomical community has gone through an extremely productive exercise in navel gazing, producing exhaustive reports once a decade to lay out our priorities as a field. These reports are the result of a year long process of consultation, analysis, and lobbying. Through the National Academy of Sciences, the community organizes a series of committees to evaluate every aspect of US astronomical research. They try to identify scientific areas that are ripe for breakthroughs, and then to match these areas with specific technological investments in astronomical tools (primarily telescopes, but also increasingly computational and theoretical resources). The committees then do their best to rank these investments into a prioritized list.

The process of making a prioritized list is relatively horrific, since it involves choices between extremely different, non-overlapping projects. For example, if you’ve spent your life understanding optical and near-infrared spectra of galaxies, you’ll be rooting for a gigantic ground based telescope — most competing projects will be of little utility for your research. However, as a field, we are forced to face up to the fact that sometimes the best way to move forward on an astrophysical topic is not necessarily where we, as individuals, have chosen to do so. We also have to recognize that what may interest us personally may not be the most important question in the field. For example, I’m a nearby galaxy kind of girl, but I’d be a fool not to recognize that extrasolar planets are far more “ripe” for dramatic results. Finally, accepting these facts is not equally easy for all individuals, and many people are willing to go the mattresses for their preferred outcome. One hopes for good behavior, but people will be people.

The reason the process is so high-stakes is that the ranking that comes out of the Decadal Survey is taken very, very seriously. The upper administration of NASA and the National Science Foundation take these recommendations as commandments (i.e. don’t bother seeking funding for the satellite telescope that was ranked 15th). Ever more seriously, congressional staffers read these reports, making Congress extremely unlikely to finance anything but a top ranked project. (The few times that earmarks have been laid out for specific projects, it’s been Seriously Frowned Upon by the community, and by any administrator who has based their planning on the ranked list). Frankly, this is great, even if it’s hard. We wouldn’t want anyone else to make these decisions but us, as hard as it is to sometimes see your favorite project nudged out by something you are far less interested in.

So, the big things to look for in the news tomorrow are the first ranked ground-based project (i.e. NSF funded) and the first ranked space-based project (NASA funded). In the current funding climate, and with the growing costs of building competitive facilities, the community is unlikely to get more than one major initiative rolling — if that. This decadal report is unlikely to make the mistakes of the last one, which can best be described as being equivalent to asking a 3 year old whether they’d prefer a bathtub full of ice cream or a pony. This round, there was much more attention paid to cost, so that the committee could make realistic decisions.

Frankly, it’s a bit of a scary time. The situation reminds me a bit too much of the Superconducting Supercollider. The funding levels needed to make big advances are at a point where we really can’t afford more than one major initiative a decade. That puts us in the unfortunate position of having a single point failure. Say we back one big project. Suppose that the one big project goes over budget (as cutting edge facilities frequently do) to the point where it gets cancelled, 10-15 years from now. Then, we’re left with nothing, and young astronomers start looking for jobs in Europe.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science, Science and Politics, Space

Space Weather Forecast – Aurorae Tomorrow?

By John Conway | August 2, 2010 4:13 pm

CME

The sun kind of burped yesterday, and sent gigatons (or maybe definitely not hellatons) of material streaming our way – to Earth that is. There is an awesome video of it over at SpaceWeather.com. The particles, mainly electrons and protons in the sub-100-eV range, are expected to reach earth tomorrow (Aug. 3) and could give vigorous auroral activity. I am not sure that northern California is northern enough to see it, but who knows? Take pictures, someone!

Once, about six or seven years ago, on an airplane flight from Chicago to California, I was on the right side of the plane and stared for hours at the shimmering curtains of green and red and purple, slowly waving as if in a breeze. It was an amazing sight!

This has been an fairly quiet solar cycle, and we are now heading to a solar max in three years which is on track to be just over half as intense as the last one in 2001, and the lowest in over 100 years. Too bad, just when I got into amateur radio…

CATEGORIZED UNDER: News, Space

Falcon 9, Flight 1

By Sean Carroll | June 4, 2010 2:13 pm

SpaceX, a private company that is developing the capability to launch both manned and unmanned missions into space, today successfully launched their Falcon 9 launch vehicle into orbit from Cape Canaveral in Florida. This is the rocket that is designed to eventually deliver Dragon spacecraft to low Earth orbit, including to the International Space Station. It was quite a thrill to watch the launch live on webcam — there was one little glitch that delayed the flight at the very moment of planned launch, but they quickly recovered and made a successful attempt within today’s launch window. Congratulations to SpaceX!

Video via Steinn.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology
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