Astro2010: Limitless vistas on a limited budget

September 01, 2010

What can scientists hope to learn in the coming decade about the most basic questions about the cosmos and our place in it - from extraterrestrial life to the evolution of the Universe - while keeping to an earthbound budget?

That's the question at the heart of Astro2010, the new decadal survey of astronomy and astrophysics sponsored by the National Research Council that provides direction for U.S. federal funding of research in these fields for the next ten years. Shortly after the survey was unveiled in August, two members of the committee that drafted the document offered their perspective not only on the survey, but also on the current and future direction of research.

"It has been a decade of explosive discovery," says astrophysicist Roger Blandford, survey chair and director of Stanford University's Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology. "Dark energy, dark matter, exoplanets, making precise cosmological measurements .... These are all enduring developments in science, and we've clearly got a lot to exploit in this decade."

Among other things, scientists in 10 years may be within striking distance of detecting and imaging earth-like, habitable planets orbiting nearby stars. They also see the possibility of solving the riddles of the "cosmic dawn," the period about half a billion years after the Big Bang when the first stars, galaxies and black holes formed. Ten years ago, the excitement about potential new discoveries was much like it is today. But the latest survey adds a new element of fiscal caution. Blandford says it reflects "a rather somber view that was granted to us by the [federal] agencies of the likely budgets as they saw them over the coming decade, which were really quite restrictive."

Michael Turner, director of the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at the University of Chicago, and a cosmologist who served on the 2000 and 2010 decadal survey committees, describes the key difference between the two: "With the last survey, the nation's biggest problem was how to spend a looming surplus, and there was a sense that we'd better get a lot on the table because science should get its share of the surplus. This time, we had a much better idea of the budgets, and we tried to put forward a program that was executable."

This attention to budgets, risks and timetables does not shut the door to productive science. In fact, it might have helped the survey participants sharpen their focus on scientific questions and pay less attention to the glamor of big projects. The survey framed its recommendations by identifying three top-priority research objectives - finding nearby habitable planets, studying the cosmic dawn, and understanding the fundamental physics of the Universe - and then chose projects accordingly. Turner notes that these projects were not all massive enterprises such as big ground- or space-based telescopes. The survey seeks a funding boost for NASA's relatively low-cost Explorer program, for instance. Turner says the survey didn't just pay lip service to small- and medium-sized projects; "It put its money where its mouth is."

So what does the survey reveal about the direction of astronomy and astrophysics and the challenges facing these fields? Among the trends pointed out by Blandford and Turner:
For the complete discussion with Roger Blandford and Michael Turner, visit:

The Kavli Foundation

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