Let’s Do This Thing
The National Research Council (NRC) just released the sixth astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey. The report presents a challenging range of prioritized programs that require federal investment and, in many cases, international partnership. Best efforts were made to fairly assess the costs and risk of the projects as well as to consider an unprecedented level of community input. It is fair to say that the report represents the U.S. astronomy and astrophysics community’s strategically selected scientific needs for the coming decade. Nobody can fault the process or say that he or she was unable to participate meaningfully, and tough choices were clearly made.
The report begins with an assessment of current scientific priorities, followed by a careful selection and prioritization of infrastructure and other requirements that can achieve the selected high-priority science goals: understanding the early history of our universe (between when matter first formed and the first stars turned on and the first galaxies appeared); seeking nearby habitable planets; and understanding dark matter and dark energy (fundamental components of our universe about which we know almost nothing today).
These are admirable science goals, which are clearly the most pressing issues in our field. To achieve them, astronomers need instruments and support. These will come in bulk from the government. But funding alone is not enough; we also need leadership and cooperation, and a lot of both.
The most watched recommendations are in the areas of large space missions and large ground-based telescopes. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, many years along in planning and development, was selected as the top ground-based project. Despite all the work done on the telescope, it is not yet “in the queue” for construction by the National Science Foundation. This has to be accomplished soon to have a hope of meeting a first-light goal of late this decade.
Perhaps the most challenging recommendation in the report, however, is the choice for top priority in large space missions. The committee calls for funding of a Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) that would cost about $1.6 billion and is relatively low risk.
Interestingly, if you do a Google search on WFIRST, you won’t find a mission web page, just links to press reports about the decadal survey. That’s because this space telescope is a creation of the NRC committee that wrote the decadal survey report. It saw that a large-diameter, wide-field telescope operating in the infrared could support several of its scientific goals, although it is unlikely to launch before 2020.
The challenge with this recommendation is that several disparate groups proposing space telescopes like this one need to come together and work under a single, unified umbrella. Additionally, the Europeans are pursuing a similar mission, not as broad in capability or goals, called Euclid, which is competing for funding from the European Space Agency. The committee urged partnership with the Europeans, but in a leadership role. Obviously, this will be a challenge too. The U.S. will have to quickly and carefully broker a deal if Euclid is selected for funding and motivate a partnership if it is not. WFIRST is a challenging recommendation at many levels.
However, despite challenging recommendations like WFIRST, this report has done far better in achieving the goals of prioritization, accurate (or at least uniform) costing and risk estimation. Many hours of effort went into the report, from not just the main committee itself but the community at large (we saw lower submissions to our research journals than normal near the deadline for the decadal survey white papers). Astronomy is too deeply invested in this report to let it fail.
To achieve the vision of this decadal survey, we will need leadership, not just from the leaders of particular missions or mission concepts, but from the funding agencies: NASA, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. The agencies are called upon in the report to do some hard things: effectively create international partnerships that work and work well, and carve out wedges of funding for a variety of activities while maintaining balance and existing missions and instruments. It won’t be easy. Community decisions must be made and cooperation established, especially for WFIRST, but also in the selection of a single 30-meter ground-based telescope and to achieve success in the radio wavelength community, among many other challenges.
We will fail our discipline, the nation and ourselves if we do not take on these recommendations as a challenge to be accomplished, not a gripe list to be mulled over. It would be terribly easy to let the report’s recommendations fail. Bickering, infighting, the rule of self-interest — all these things are aligned against the report’s success. However, with leadership, cooperation and a unified, community effort to achieve the recommendations, the exciting science goals that motivated the prioritization effort will be achievable. If this report fails, astronomy and astrophysics in this nation will fail as well. We cannot allow that to happen, so let’s do this thing!
Kevin B. Marvel is executive officer of the American Astronomical Society.