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."