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The Sciences

Astronomers Announce Priorities: Dark Energy, Exoplanets, Cosmic Origins

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There is a lot of space to explore and a limited amount of money to spend. So every ten years the National Research Council's "Decadal Survey" recommends which astronomy and astrophysics projects should get first dibs. Last week, the committee released their recommendations for 2012 through 2021. The projects that got the thumbs-up from astronomers would tackle big tasks, like hunting for dark energy and seeking out new exoplanets. Though funding agencies (like NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy), Congressional committees, and the scientific community often use the survey to select the observatories on which to focus attention and resources, some were skeptical about this report given the 2001 survey's recommendations and results.

Although these reports have always been influential—policymakers like scientists to rank their needs—only two of the seven major projects that appeared on the wish list in the 2001 survey have been funded, leading astronomers to wonder if the exercise is as useful as they'd like it to be. Previous surveys have also been faulted for providing unrealistic cost estimates, as low as a fifth of what certain missions have ended up costing. As a result, there has been considerable pressure on the committee that authored [Friday's] report to prioritize projects more effectively and estimate costs better. [Science Insider]

This time, the committee hoped to avoid these budget underestimates by evaluating the financial and technical risk of each project.

"I think at the time of the previous decadal survey, people didn't appreciate the importance of taking a second look at the cost of things and not just taking the word of the people submitting the projects," says astronomer Claire Max of the University of California in Santa Cruz, a member of the final survey committee. This time around, the panel hired an outside expert to help estimate the funding and technical risk of each project. [Nature News]

Nature Newsoutlines the survey's funding recommendations for a wide range of projects, but two observatories--one in space and one on the ground--seem most promising to the committee, fitting with the survey's major three priorities.

The committee highlighted three main areas of science, none of which should be too surprising to those who follow the field: Cosmic Dawn, New Worlds and the Physics of the Universe. Or, how did all of this get here, are there planets like Earth nearby, and what makes up the universe? Projects that are well suited to answer these questions, as well as technologically feasible, were given high recommendations. [Discovery News]

In Space The survey recommends the most funding for the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), a joint project between NASA and the Department of Energy, which has an estimated cost of $1.6 billion. After an expected launch in 2020, WFIRST will record light from distant supernova among other things, and hopefully provide insights into the universe's expansion and dark energy. Committee members also believe the telescope may help in the hunt for exoplanets.

"WFIRST not only gets at all the dark energy [priorities], but it also has significant capability in exoplanet science and will do outstanding work in infrared survey science," Michael Turner, a cosmologist at the University of Chicago and the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics told physicsworld.com. Turner, who served on the 23-member committee for the decadal survey, also notes that the survey did not reject the idea of a possible collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA) to combine its planned Euclid dark-energy mission with WFIRST. [Physics World]

On the Ground The survey also recommends support for the $463 million Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (pictured above). When completed, the telescope will survey the entire sky every week with a three-billion pixel digital camera to help researchers understand dark matter, dark energy, supernovae, near-Earth asteroids, and Kuiper belt objects.

In placing the LSST atop its priority list, the report highlighted the telescope's technical readiness and its "compelling science case and capacity to address so many of the science goals of this survey," including exploring the fundamental physical makeup of the universe by probing the nature of dark matter and dark energy. [Scientific American]

The DISCOVER blog Cosmic Variance has more on all this: The Next 10 Years of Astronomy explains what the Decadal Survey means to astronomers The Next Decade of US Space AstronomyThe Next Decade of US Ground Based Astronomy

Image: LSST Corporation

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