“A Shared Vision”: Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey

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Publication date: 
20 September 2010

“The survey covers what has been learned, what could be learned, and what it will take to sustain the current revolution in understanding.” So states the recently-released report entitled “New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics,” produced by the Committee for a Decadal Survey of Astronomy and Astrophysics of the National Research Council of the National Academies.

The 23-member survey committee is chaired by Roger Blandford of Stanford University. Assisting the committee were twelve officials and staff members of the Board on Physics and Astronomy. Donald Shapero is the Director of the Board. Michael Moloney is the Astro2010 Study Director and the Director of the Space Studies Board. The Board is a component of the Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences.

The 270-page report was reviewed at a briefing at the National Academies in mid-August. The report, an archived webcast of the briefing and accompanying exhibits from this presentation are available here.

This is the sixth U.S. astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey. The first was conducted in 1964, and subsequent surveys have been conducted approximately every ten years since. The last survey was issued in 2001. The 2010 survey was started in December 2008 at a meeting in Washington, D.C. The Statement of Task and Scope released at this meeting follows:

“The Astro2010 committee will survey the field of space- and ground-based astronomy and astrophysics, recommending priorities for the most important scientific and technical activities of the decade 2010-2020.

"The principal goals of the study will be to carry out an assessment of activities in astronomy and astrophysics, including both new and previously identified concepts, and to prepare a concise report that will be addressed to the agencies supporting the field, the Congressional committees with jurisdiction over those agencies, and the scientific community."

Astro2010's scope included the research programs of NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy.

Previous astronomical and astrophysics decadal surveys, and similar surveys in other fields have been cited many times by officials in previous administrations and by Members and staff on Capitol Hill. The new survey will undoubtedly play an important role in the determination of future federal budgets.

As outlined at last month’s briefing, the survey committee decided there would be “significant community engagement,” with priority given to “science first.” In reviewing proposed projects there would be “independent analysis of risk, technical readiness, schedule, and life cycle costs.” Uncertainty about federal and other funding led the committee to recommend future programs under several budgetary scenarios. Finally, the committee determined there would be “consideration of unstarted projects from previous surveys – no ‘grandfathering.’”

In conducting the survey, the committee established six infrastructure study groups and five science frontier panels with a total of 123 members. Science priorities were organized under three science objectives:

Cosmic Dawn. “Searching for the first stars, galaxies and black holes”
New Worlds. “Seeking nearby, habitable planets”
Physics of the Universe. “Understanding Scientific Principles”

The committee sought to balance their program recommendations from six perspectives:

“Large and small/medium activities
Existing and new facilities
Known science objectives and discovery science
Promise vs. risk
Ground and space
2020 and 2030.”

The recommendations of the survey committee are as follows:


The Large Scale Space Program priorities are:

1. Wide Field InfraRed Survey Telescope (WFIRST)
2. Explorer Program Augmentation
3. Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA)
4. International X-ray Observatory (IXO)

The Medium-Scale Space Program priorities are:

1. New Worlds Technology Development Program
2. Inflation Technology Development Program


The Large-scale Ground-based Program priorities are:

1. Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST)
2. Mid-Scale Innovations Program
3. Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope (GSMT)
4. Atmospheric Cerenkov Telescope Array (ACTA)

The Medium-scale Ground-based Program priority is:

1. Cerro Chajnantor Atacama Telescope (CCAT)

The committee also recommended eleven small-scale, ground and space, program augmentations and initiatives. These were not prioritized.

Specific recommendations were developed for NASA, NSF, and DOE, and in other areas such as international collaboration, STEM literacy, and career mentoring.

The text of the Executive Summary of ASTRO 2010 concludes with the following paragraph:

“The committee notes with appreciation the striking level of effort and involvement in this survey contributed by the astronomy and astrophysics community. The vision detailed in this report is a shared vision.”


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