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Astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey recommendations released

SPIE Newsroom
13 August 2010

The Astro2010 Survey Committee report, "New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics," was released by the National Academies in Washington, DC, on Friday, 13 August. The report recommended priorities of the most important scientific and technical activities for astronomy and astrophysics over the next 10 years. The committee tried to include a balance of small, medium, and large initiatives, as well as ground- and space-based telescopes across the electromagnetic spectrum.

During its two-year study, the committee weighed input from nearly 200 astronomers and astrophysicists serving on panels or infrastructure study groups. There was also an unprecedented response of 324 science white papers, 69 position papers, 70 technology white papers, 108 community responses, and several community-organized town halls. The Astro2010 committee commented on the involvement and support by the astronomical community and immense effort by the committee, panels, and consultants, as well as the strong cooperation of the agencies and professional societies.

"I believe NASA is at its finest when it is executing a consensus agenda, endorsed by the National Academy, that can become a national policy that everyone in the country can get behind. There's no partisanship here, no arguments - we have a consensus agenda to move forward with," said SPIE Fellow H. Philip Stahl, senior optical physicist at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, and technical lead for optical components on the James Webb Space Telescope.

The recommendations were organized by three main objectives: cosmic dawn (searching for the first stars, galaxies and black holes), new worlds and nearby habitable planets, and physics of the universe such as dark energy, dark matter, and studying Einstein's theory of relativity. The committee prioritized projects based on the infrastructure of existing programs, cost, maximizing return, urgent needs, and international and private partnerships.

Projects that were recommended for priority attention included the large scale space programs Wide Field InfraRed Survey Telescope (WFIRST), as well as Explorer Program augmentation, the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, and the International X-ray Observatory (IXO). The large-scale ground-based program Large synoptic survey telescope (LSST), and mid-scale innovations program such as the giant segmented mirror telescope, and Atmospheric Cernkov Telescope Array, and the medium-scale Cerro Chajnantor Atacama Telescope also made the cut.

"I was slightly surprised to see the Explorer program ranked higher than LISA or IXO," said Marc Postman, head of Community Missions Office Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD. "At the same time, I know the Explorer program has been cut and I think the Decadal committee is right to try to rectify that. It is a very worthwhile program."

"The 2010 report is so much better and more useful than the 2000 because of the fact that they took into account the budget constraints and ranked the missions based on what's real and available money," Stahl said.

"I think within the constrained budget environment, the decadal priorities do directly address or begin to develop the technology to address the top astrophysical questions of our time - what is the nature of dark energy? What is the nature of dark matter? And are there habitable worlds around Solar type stars?" Postman said.

This report also looks to the future of astronomy, not just the next ten years. "I also think they made it pretty clear that a UV-optical successor to HST is a serious contender for the top priority in the 2020 decadal review. The UV-optical astronomy community now has about 8 years (or less) to come together and define the specifications for that observatory," Postman said.

Astro2010 Decadal Survey Website 

"New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics" (prepublication version): http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12951