"Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium": NRC Report Sets Priorities

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Publication date: 
8 June 2000


An important National Research Council report predicts major advances in understanding the universe in the coming decade, but cautions that changes are needed in the federal government's support of astronomy and astrophysics. The Next Generation Space Telescope, with 100 times the sensitivity of the Hubble Space Telescope, is given the highest priority in this report that ranked astronomical research and instrumentation for this decade.

This 164-page report is the fifth in a series of surveys conducted at ten-year intervals, the last being the Bahcall Report issued in 1991. Previous reports have received considerable notice from Congress. This new report is now available as an unedited prepublication draft. Professor Christopher F. McKee of the University of California, Berkeley and Professor Joseph H. Taylor of Princeton University were the co-chairs of the 100+ member committee, broken down into nine panels, which wrote the report. Input from the larger astronomy community was provided through forums organized by the American Astronomical Society.

This report is a roadmap for 2000 to 2010, assigning priorities for 21 new equipment initiatives based on scientific merit, technical readiness, cost effectiveness, impact on education and the public, and relationship to other projects. The total cost of this equipment is $4.670 billion. More than half of this amount is for seven major initiatives: Next Generation Space Telescope, Giant Segmented-Mirror Telescope, Constellation-X Observatory, Expanded Very Large Array, Large-aperture Synoptic Survey Telescope, Terrestrial Planet Finder, and the Single- Aperture Far InfraRed Observatory.

There are six major recommendations in the report's Executive Summary. They include balancing the existing program with new initiatives, augmenting ground-based astronomy and astrophysics, NASA mission diversity, integrating Theory Challenges with new initiatives, federal agency coordination, and international collaboration.

The report also has chapters on how astronomy benefits the nation, its contribution to education, and policy. The policy chapter cites NSF figures showing astronomy Ph.D. recipients increased 37% from 1994-1997; in the same period physics Ph.D. recipients declined 11%. A major focus of this chapter is on strengthening ground-based astronomy, for which federal support is provided by the National Science Foundation. Policy recommendations for ground-based observations go beyond money, and include viewing all national and independently-operated facilities as integrated systems.

The report concludes with responses to three questions posed to it by the House Science Committee. The Science Committee wanted to know if NASA and NSF mission objectives have enabled a "balanced, broad based, robust science program" that "resulted in an optimum science program from a productivity standpoint." While finding the program is robust and broadly-based, the report expressed concern about balance - specifically how a large percentage of federal support is tied to a few flagship NASA missions. The Science Committee was also interested in strategic cooperation between NSF and NASA, and wanted to know how each agency determined the allocation of money between existing programs and new initiatives.

"Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium" can be viewed at http://www.nap.edu/catalog/9839.html

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