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News from the National Academies
Date: May 18, 2000
Contacts: Bob Ludwig, Media Relations Associate
Megan O'Neill, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <news@nas.edu>

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Survey of Astronomy Maps Out Priorities
For the Next 10 Years

WASHINGTON -- Building on the progress that scientists have made in unlocking the secrets of the universe, a new report from the National Research Council of the National Academies maps out the priorities for investments in astronomy research over the next decade. The highest priority is given to the Next Generation Space Telescope, an instrument that will be far more advanced than the Hubble telescope and should dramatically increase our understanding of how the first stars and galaxies formed billions of years ago and how stars and planets form today. The report also zeroes in on other projects that have the greatest promise for providing more knowledge.

"New discoveries have the potential to shed light on many key challenges in astronomy, including identifying the total amount of matter in the universe as well as its age, evolution, and ability to support life," said Joseph H. Taylor, James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Physics at Princeton University, Princeton, N.J. "We also may soon understand how black holes are formed and how the astronomical environment affects Earth," added Christopher F. McKee, professor of physics and of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley. McKee and Taylor are co-chairs of the committee that wrote the report.

In addition to the Next Generation Space Telescope, which will have 100 times the sensitivity of the Hubble telescope and will provide images 10 times as sharp, developing the ground-based Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope is also a high priority, the report says. This instrument could provide the means to trace the evolution of galaxies and study the matter between them. Developing the technology for the telescope should begin immediately, with construction getting under way within the decade.

Several other major initiatives also should receive priority attention, the committee said. For example, completion of the Constellation-X Observatory would make it the premier instrument for studying the formation of black holes. Expansion of the Very Large Array radio telescope in New Mexico would permit the study of distant galaxies and the disk-shaped regions around stars where planets form. A large ground-based survey telescope could open up the study of how objects in the universe change and move over short periods of time. In particular, this telescope could be used to catalog 90 percent of the near-Earth objects larger than 300 meters in diameter -- roughly the length of three football fields -- and would allow researchers to assess the threat these objects pose to this planet.

Also high on the list is the Terrestrial Planet Finder, the most ambitious science mission ever attempted by NASA. The unmanned spacecraft would study planets around nearby stars and search for evidence of life.

Among moderate-sized programs, the committee placed precedence on a plan to increase funding from the National Science Foundation for developing new instrumentation at private observatories with optical telescopes. In return, the facilities would be required to provide observing time to the community at large. Other highly rated programs of this size include a large telescope to study gamma rays from space, an instrument to measure the gravitational waves predicted by Einstein's relativistic theory of gravity, and a powerful telescope to study the sun. The top billing among small initiatives goes to a "virtual observatory" that would make large sets of astronomical data available to scientists and the public on the Internet.

To ensure best use of funding, new initiatives should be balanced with the completion of other important projects, such as Space Infrared Telescope Facility, which is the last of the four missions in NASA's "Great Observatories" program, and a large array of radio telescopes to be built in Chile. Before new facilities are built, funding should be earmarked for operations, continuous instrument upgrades, and data analysis and related theory, the report says.

In addition to technologically advanced instrumentation and facilities, the report recommends increased investment in astronomy theory. It is often theorists who provide the ideas that guide the choice of instruments and the interpretation of data. The committee recommended that most new initiatives support theoretical work on at least one challenging problem of particular relevance, to increase the involvement of theorists in initiative planning and execution.

Adequate support of unrestricted grants -- those that are not tied to a specific facility or program -- is crucial, the report says. New initiatives should not be undertaken at the expense of these grants, which enable scientists to explore uncharted areas in astronomy and astrophysics.

NSF and the astronomy community should view U.S. ground-based optical-infrared, radio, and solar telescope facilities as a single integrated system, supported by both federal and private funding, the report says. Effective organizations are essential to manage the facilities and coordinate with universities and independent observatories to ensure success.

Because some of the projects will be extraordinarily complex and expensive, international collaboration will be essential, the committee said. These global partnerships are critical for providing broad scientific and technical expertise as well as financial support to manage projects that are too costly for the United States to carry out on its own.

Opportunities for astronomers to work more closely with educational institutions, from elementary schools to universities, also should be expanded, the report says. Pilot programs should be initiated that bring astronomy and education departments together to develop new astronomy-based courses for training new teachers. Coordination also should be improved among the federal programs that fund educational initiatives in astronomy.

The study was funded by NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the Keck Foundation. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a nonprofit institution that provides independent advice on science and technology issues under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

Read the full text of Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium for free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web site or at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).

NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Applications
Board on Physics and Astronomy
Space Studies Board

Astronomy and Astrophysics Survey Committee

Christopher F. McKee* (co-chair)
Professor of Physics and of Astronomy
Departments of Physics and Astronomy
University of California
Berkeley

Joseph H. Taylor Jr.* (co-chair)
James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor
Department of Physics, and
Dean of the Faculty
Princeton University
Princeton, N.J.

Todd A. Boroson
Deputy Director, U.S. Gemini Program
National Optical Astronomy Observatories
Tucson, Ariz.

Wendy L. Freedman
Astronomer
Carnegie Observatories
Pasadena, Calif.

David J. Hollenbach
Senior Research Scientist, Center for Star Formation
Planetary Systems Branch
NASA Ames Research Center
Moffett Field, Calif.

David C. Jewitt
Professor
Institute for Astronomy
University of Hawaii
Honolulu

Steven M. Kahn
Professor
Department of Physics
Columbia University
New York City

James M. Moran Jr.*
Professor of Astronomy and Senior Radio Astronomer
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Cambridge, Mass.

Jerry E. Nelson*
Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics
Lick Observatory
University of California Observatories
Santa Cruz

R. Bruce Partridge
Professor of Astronomy
Department of Astronomy
Haverford College
Haverford, Pa.

Marcia J. Rieke
Professor of Astronomy
University of Arizona, and
Astronomer
Steward Observatory
Tucson

Anneila I. Sargent
Senior Research Associate in Astronomy
Department of Astronomy, and
Executive Director, Owens Valley Radio Observatory
California Institute of Technology
Pasadena

Alan M. Title
Consulting Physicist
Lockheed Martin Space and Advanced Technology Center
Lockheed Martin Corp.
Palo Alto, Calif.

Scott D. Tremaine
Professor and Chair
Department of Astrophysical Sciences
Princeton University
Princeton, N.J.

Michael S. Turner*
Professor, Department of Physics; Professor and Chair, Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics; and Scientist, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory
University of Chicago
Chicago

RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF

Robert L. Riemer, Senior Program Officer

Joel R. Parriott, Program Officer

Donald C. Shapero, Director, Board on Physics and Astronomy

Joseph Alexander, Director, Space Studies Board

*Member, National Academy of Sciences