A new decadal survey from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine identifies scientific priorities, opportunities, and funding recommendations for the next 10 years of astronomy and astrophysics. 

The report presents a visionary plan for the field to pursue discovery and exploration of habitable planets, enhance understanding of the dynamic and changing universe, and study what drives the formation of galaxies. It recommends an ambitious program of investments to strengthen the profession, change how large strategic space missions are developed and matured, and achieve broad scientific capabilities.

Pathways to Discovery in Astronomy and Astrophysics for the 2020s drew from the astronomical community through hundreds of white papers, town hall meetings, and the advice of 13 sub-panels over several years to produce its recommendations.

“We stand on the threshold of new endeavors and scientific capabilities that could transform our understanding of how galaxies form and how our universe began,” said Robert Kennicutt, professor at University of Arizona, professor of physics and astronomy at Texas A&M University, and co-chair of the National Academies’ steering committee for the survey. “But our report says serious attention also needs to be paid to investments in the foundations of this research — including in the people who carry it out — and in ensuring that the U.S. community is well equipped to capitalize on the wealth of information that will keep it on the cutting edge of the worldwide endeavor to understand the cosmos.”

“This report sets an ambitious, inspirational, and aspirational vision for the coming decade of astronomy and astrophysics,” said Fiona Harrison, chair of the division of physics, mathematics, and astronomy at the California Institute of Technology, and steering committee co-chair. “In changing how we plan for the most ambitious strategic space projects, we can develop a broad portfolio of missions to pursue visionary goals, such as searching for life on planets orbiting stars in our galactic neighborhood — and at the same time exploit the richness of 21st century astrophysics through a panchromatic fleet.”

A Strong Foundation for Astronomy and Astrophysics

The report emphasizes the importance of balancing investments in research, and recommends strengthening investments in the foundations of astronomy and astrophysics as well as in its workforce.

The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Division of Astronomical Sciences faces historic underinvestment in foundational activities — such as supporting early-career scientists or data archiving — and investments should be increased to cover the operational cost of existing research facilities and to ensure a sustainable model for operating new facilities, the report says. Expanding the division’s grants program is the highest priority among foundational activities recommended in the report, which says $16.5 million in additional annual grants should be funded by 2028.

Funding to support diverse faculty in university astronomy and astrophysics programs should be increased. Among other steps, the report recommends NASA, NSF, and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) ensure their policies treat harassment and discrimination as forms of scientific misconduct, and invest in workforce diversity at the division and directorate levels — as well as consider including the diversity of project teams and participants as a criterion when awarding funding. NSF and NASA should implement funding for traineeship and postdoctoral fellowships to develop diverse and inclusive excellence.

The report also calls for a Community Astronomy model of engagement — to respect, empower, and benefit local communities while advancing scientific research.

Scientific Priorities

The report identifies three priority scientific areas that motivate recommended investments over the next decade:

– Pathways to habitable worlds – Identify and characterize Earth-like planets outside this solar system, with the ultimate goal of obtaining imaging of potentially habitable worlds.

– New windows on the dynamic universe – Probe the nature of black holes and neutron stars — and the explosive events that gave rise to them — and understand what happened in the earliest moments in the birth of the universe.

– Drivers of galaxy growth – Revolutionize understanding of the origins and evolution of galaxies, from the webs of gas that feed them to the formation of stars.

Missions and Projects

The report recommends that NASA create a new Great Observatories Mission and Technology Maturation Program, which would formulate several major overlapping space missions in the upcoming decades, changing the way major projects are planned and developed. The program would provide early investment in the development of multiple mission concepts to lower the risks and costs of projects before they become too complex, large, and costly.

The first mission to enter this program should be an infrared/optical/ultraviolet (IR/O/UV) telescope — significantly larger than the Hubble Space Telescope — that can observe planets 10 billion times fainter than their star, and provide spectroscopic data on exoplanets, among other capabilities. The report says this large strategic mission is of an ambitious scale that only NASA can undertake and for which the U.S. is uniquely situated to lead. At an estimated cost of $11 billion, implementation of this IR/O/UV telescope could begin by the end of the decade, after the mission and technologies are matured, and a review considers it ready for implementation. If successful, this would lead to a launch in the first half of the 2040 decade.

Five years after beginning this first mission, the report recommends NASA start preliminary studies of both a Far-IR strategic mission and a high-resolution X-ray large strategic mission with target costs of $3 billion to $5 billion.

The highest priority for large NSF projects is to invest in the Giant Magellan Telescope and Thirty Meter Telescope projects to ensure significant access to these tools for the entire U.S. astronomical community. The scientific potential of these observatories is transformative, with the ability to address all three of the scientific priority areas and complement current and future space telescopes.

NSF and DOE should jointly pursue implementation of the Cosmic Microwave Background Stage 4 Observatory, which the report says is a compelling and timely leap forward for ground-based observations of the emergent universe, as well as an important tool for understanding its evolution. The report says the Karl Jansky Very Large Array and the Very Long Baseline Array, the world’s leading radio observatories, should be replaced by the Next-Generation Very Large Array — an observatory with 10 times the sensitivity — beginning technical planning soon in order to be considered for construction by the end of the decade.

Sustaining Activities

The highest-priority sustaining activity for NSF’s ground-based projects is a significant expansion of mid-scale programs, which have proved to be essential for deploying novel ideas that harness the ingenuity of the community and for maintaining the rapid and sustained advance of astronomy and astrophysics.

The report says the highest-priority sustaining activity for NASA is the space-based time-domain and multi-messenger program — comprised of small- and medium-scale missions. NASA should also pursue a new line of probe missions. A cadence of one probe mission per decade, with a cost cap of $1.5 billion, balances
scientific scope with timeliness, the report says.

The study — undertaken by the Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics 2020 (Astro2020) Steering Committee — was sponsored by NASA, National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Energy, and U.S. Air Force.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.


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