Space Science Initiative Would Address Fundamental Physics Questions

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Publication date: 
17 October 2003

Beginning with the 2004 fiscal year, NASA has planned a new space science initiative to explore some fundamental questions about the nature of the universe that arise from Einstein's theory of relativity. An October 15 Capitol Hill briefing by the American Astronomical Society (AAS) and the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) highlighted this initiative, entitled "Beyond Einstein."

The Beyond Einstein initiative would utilize a series of space science missions of varying sizes to address three questions: What powered the Big Bang? What happens to space, time, and matter at the edge of a black hole? What is the mysterious dark energy pulling the Universe apart? According to NASA background materials, "Einstein's legacy is incomplete; his theory fails to explain the underlying physics of the very phenomena his work predicted.... Beyond Einstein will employ a series of missions linked by powerful new technologies and common science goals to answer these questions." Stated Edward Kolb of Fermilab at the briefing, "we believe we are now in a position to answer these questions."

NASA's plan proposes two new "great observatories": Constellation-X, which would use X-rays to explore what happens to matter at the edge of a black hole; and the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), which would use gravitational waves to probe the changes in space and time around black holes. Both missions were endorsed in the astronomy and astrophysics community's most recent decadal survey, "Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium."

The initiative would also include a series of three moderate-sized "Einstein Probes" which would, according to NASA, determine the properties of dark energy; "detect the imprints left by quantum effects and gravitational waves at the beginning of the Big Bang;" and "take a census of black holes in the local Universe." In addition to the space science missions, the initiative would support technology development and research in preparation for future missions to directly detect gravitational waves from the earliest moments of the Big Bang, and to directly image and map the motion of matter near the edge of a black hole.

According to an analysis by AAS, the budget request for the Beyond Einstein program would be $765 million over five years, with $59 million requested for FY 2004. Neither the House nor the Senate Appropriations Committee reports (H. Rept. 108-235 and S. Rept. 108-143) specifically mentions the Beyond Einstein initiative or provides funding recommendations at that level of detail.

There is "a tremendous amount of excitement in the field right now," said Wendy Freedman of the Carnegie Institution at the October 15 briefing. "We can begin to address some of these questions left by Einstein." Kolb added that the initiative will provide research opportunities "at an energy scale larger than we could afford to build an accelerator to do." It "leapfrogs what we can do on Earth," he said, by using "the universe as an accelerator."

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