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Space scientists lay out ambitious 10-year plan

Posted November 5, 2021 12:16 a.m. EDT

Artist's concept of the completed Giant Magellan Telescope which will be situated in the Atacama Desert some 115 km (71 mi) north-northeast of La Serena, Chile. (courtesy Giant Magellan Telescope/US-ELT)

The National Academy of Sciences released its decadal survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics on Thursday. The report maps a strategy for research and a vision for what astronomy will look in the next ten years.

Although not bound to recommendations from the private, nongovernmental scientific organization, the National Science Foundation and NASA use the report in prioritizing which telescopes and space missions should be supported.

Dubbed Astro2020, the report also includes a first time panel focused on addressing workplace issues including racism and sexism along with encouraging education and public engagement.

A wish list for astronomers

Recognizing that as science progresses and the needs of scientists get more specific, missions, especially space telescopes, grow bigger, more complex, and more expensive, NASA and the National Academies asked astronomers to dream-big, but be realistic.

The report encourages up-front investment needed to meet these ambitious goals, recommending that "NASA immediately commence aggressive technology development". It also notes missions that complement ones active or planned by the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

13 panels focused on areas such as astrobiology, galaxies, stars, gravity, and observations from the ground distilled hundreds of papers down three major themes for the decade.

  • "Worlds and Suns in Context" to better understand stars and worlds orbiting. Scientist are eager to build on 30 years of exoplanet discovery (planets beyond our solar system) and learn more about these worlds, with an eye to finding habitable ones.
  • "New Messengers and New Physics" encompasses efforts that build on new ways to view the universe such tools like the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory’s (LIGO)
  • "Cosmic Ecosystems" encourages continued focus research into the process that interconnect stars to planetary systems to galaxies and beyond.

Next generation space telescope

One of the big ticket items is a next generation space telescope described as a "true successor" to the Hubble Space Telescope. The observatory would have a primary mirror more than double size of Hubble's and be capable of directly observing planets outside out solar system that are 10 billion time dimmer than the stars they orbit,  

With a $11 billion price tag and 20 years needed to design and build. This probably wont be the last decadal survey to outline this telescope.

Building on recent advances which can digitally erase the effects the atmosphere has on telescopes back here on Earth, producing results approaching much more expensive space based telescopes, the report focuses on ground based astronomy as well.

Fueled by concerns that the United States is falling behind Europe, the report calls for the U.S. to create its own Extremely Large Telescope program through investment in the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) and Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) projects. The partnership would provide views

The Next Generation Very Large Array (ngVLA), a successor to the radio telescope featured in the 1997 film Contact, is also strongly endorsed in the report.

UNC and Duke faculty contributions

Among the 867 papers submitted to the committee to help shape the report were contributions from astronomy and physics departments at UNC Chapel Hill, UNC Greensboro, and Duke University.

This included a paper on a partnership between the University of Hawaii, California Institute of Technology, and UNC at Chapel Hill on the Robo-AO-2 project. The project uses lasers to improve the performance of ground based telescopes enabling them approach the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope at a fraction of the cost.

Duke researchers also outlined furthering study of the universe with improved study of supernovae found in pairs of stars orbiting each other (binary stars). Contributors there include Dr. Alicia Aarnio, from the UNC Greensboro Physics and Astronomy department lead author on a paper outlining strategies to Increase participation of astronomers with disabilities. North Carolina A&T was also part of a study of faculty development at minority serving institutions.

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