Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Dear Santa, Astonomers Want a Bike, a 30-Meter Telescope, and Some Legos

When I was a kid, I would always put together a Christmas list around the beginning of December which contained basically an inventory of the toy section at out local department store, ranked in order from "I will die without this G.I. Joe" to merely "Must have". It was a fun exercise, even though it had very little impact on what I actually got for Christmas. In fact, some years I never even gave the list to my parents because most of the fun was actually making the list.

As you have probably guessed, I am making an analogy to the ongoing Astro2010 (aka the Decadal Survey) panel which has the job of ranking upcoming telescopes and space science missions in order to present a united front across the astronomical community when it comes to funding agencies. This involves things like deciding whether it would be better to have a space-based gravitational wave detector or an extra-solar planet finder, which personally I think are very tough decisions. How can you tell beforehand what the relative merits of two never-before-attempted experiment will be? I'm just glad I'm not on that panel.

However, what I find to be the really interesting part about this whole process is not the rankings but task of projecting what we may find using these proposed facilities. One such example is the Joint Dark Energy Mission, a proposal for space-based telescopes that will constrain dark energy. Since we essentially have no idea what dark energy could be, it is fascinating for me to read about the results that experts project from this type of experiment. Of course some of the proposals are designed to answer specific questions like how common are earth-sized planets in the Milky Way, but the really big ones (I'm thinking the James Webb Space Telescope or the Atacama Large Millimeter Array) may make their biggest discoveries about things we haven't even thought of yet.

Basically, this is Christmas time for astrophysicists and we are loving it.

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