Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Astro2010: The Future Cometh

The future of astronomy and astrophysics was announced last Friday.  Over the past two years a committee of some of the big-wigs in the field have researched, listened, pondered, and cost-assessed the future of the field.  You can find their full report (an 85 Mb pdf) here and the slides from their press conference here.  They made three big decisions:  first, they stated three science topics as the big questions for the next decade; second they ranked the upcoming space mission prospects; third, they ranked the upcoming group observatory proposals.  So let's work through the list.

The Big Topics
  1. Cosmic Dawn or "the Dark Ages" - the period of the universe of the first stars and galaxies.
  2. New Worlds - the search for extrasolar planets, especially earth-like planets
  3. Fundamental Physics - using the universe as a way to study basic physics like inflation, dark matter/energy, general relativity, etc.
Who got left off?  While you can find a way to connect pretty much every topic to one of these big ones, some of the more glaring admissions are stellar and galactic physics.

The Space Missions
  1. The Wide-Field InfraRed Survey Telescope (WFIRST):  Formerly known as JDEM, this wide-field IR telescope will be able to do everything from dark energy to exoplanet observations and will launch in 2013.  Think of WISE on steroids.
  2. More Explorer Class Missions:  More small- and medium-class missions such as WISE, NuSTAR, and IBEX.  
  3. The Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA):  The gravitational wave detector in space,  LISA should launch by 2016 assuming that LIGO finds gravitational waves and the pathfinder mission in 2012 doesn't crash and burn.  Drs. Nelson and Hirschmann must be cheering.
  4. The International X-ray Observatory (IXO):  The successor to XMM-Newton and Chandra wasn't seen as ready for launch yet and would currently cost $5B.  Don't hold your breath for this one.
The Ground Telescopes
  1. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST):  The next big survey telescope, this bad boy will take images of the entire sky every 3 nights and generate a 100 Peta-byte archive over 10 years.  Absolutely no one was surprised by this.
  2. A Mid-Scale Innovations Program:  This new program would found smaller, faster telescopes.  The recommendation is for 4 to 7 of them over the next 10 years, the first one being CCAT.
  3. A Ginormous Telescope:  Without taking sides in the debate between GMT and TMT, they endorsed a 30-meter-class telescope to be built around the end of the decade.
  4. The Atmospheric Cherenkov Telescope Array (ACTA):  Someday the NSF will fund the successor to VERITAS and the Pierre-Auger Observatory, but don't hold your breath.
So, who won, who lost, and why?  Let's hear what you think.


  1. I think given the state of the economy this is a big win. From the cosmology side of things, having LISA, JDEM and LSST will ensure the golden age of cosmology will continue for some time to come.

    As you know I am at a conference and the potential behind these experiments I am hearing is huge. Cosmologists will do some really interesting physics with them for sure.

    1. We should be able to obtain concrete evidence uncovering some of the more speculative ideas from early universe physics. For example, between the above experiments and Planck the mechanism(s) that drove inflation should become constrained to a very high degree.

    2. Similarly, the alternative explanations behind dark matter and dark energy will be greatly weeded out or confirmed.

    3. The full 3D reconstruction of dark matter halos throughout the universe will be possible.

    4. New particles have a good chance of being discovered as well, especially neutrino like particles. I hope to blog on this topic later as it is very interesting. (This decade we may beat the particle people at their own game. The LHC better act quick!)

    5. Even more...

    I guess the only experiment I was hoping to see named in addition is CMBPol, the proposed successor of Planck. However, there is still lots of hope it will fly, it just may not happen until the 2020s.

  2. Joe,

    Don't give up hope on CMBPol - since it would be an explorer class mission it actually may have an even better chance of being launched in the recommendations of this report are followed and more explorer-class missions get launched.

  3. Nick,

    That is really good to hear. As always,thanks for the good reporting.


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