If I had a billion dollars…

16 08 2010

Given a few billion dollars to support research in astronomy, what would you do? A team of US astronomers gave their answer last Friday, the 13th of August. These answers form what the US astronomy community calls the decadal plan for astronomy or Astro2010 as it’s commonly known.

Given that the European community has just produced a similar plan for astronomy research, called “ASTRONET” you’d think the outcome of the US plan would be similar. Except it isn’t. It’s so remarkably different that a lot of people were left scratching their heads on Friday.

So what did the US decide to do that the Europeans didn’t? It really comes down to the two top ranked priorities in the plan for European astronomy. Ranked joint #1 were projects to build a massive optical telescope with a 42 metre diameter mirror called E-ELT (European Extremely Large Telescope), and a even more gargantuan radio telescope called the SKA (Square Kilometer Array).

Many people were expecting the US to put similar projects into their list of proposals. Indeed the SKA is truly international project in which the US is anticipated to be involved. While for the E-ELT, the US has two competing projects TMT (the Thirty Metre Telescope) and GMT (the Giant Magellan Telescope).

What happened? The US report ranked big projects up to #4. The list for ground-based telescopes is

#1 The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST)

#2 Build lots of mid-range sized projects

#3 TMT or GMT

#4 Atmospheric Cerenkov Telescope Array (ACTA)

So no SKA, and the 30m class telescope has now fallen to a #3 priority when it was ranked #1 in 2000.

The LSST is an exceptionally interesting project. It will map ¾ of the sky repeatedly over a number of years. Many people believe it will open up entirely new areas of astronomy related to transient phenomena. Astronomers aren’t all that used to going back and seeing how things change over time, primarily because most astronomical systems take so long to evolve. But there are a lot of things that happen quickly – and may be we’ve missed some really cool stuff.

Another thing that makes the LSST really popular is that idea that its huge database will be made available to encourage citizen science. Did you catch the story about the new “pulsar” discovered on someone’s home computer that was trawling through the data in the Einstein@home project? Imagine all the cool press releases you could have if the same kind of thing happened many times over!

The second ranked idea, of building lots of mid-range sized projects, surprised many but admittedly not everyone. Indeed one famous colleague of mine I won’t mention, predicted this would happen about 8 months ago. It’s really about doing more with less. Canadians know a lot about that!

So what happened during Astro2010? On the back of a world recession risk analysis, budgets and prudence take front and centre. Both the SKA and the big optical telescopes cost 2-3 times more than the LSST – well over a billion dollars each. They also technically very risky, certain parts of the SKA are especially so. The LSST and mid-range projects avoid both these pitfalls.

How will this hefty dose of reality impact the future of astronomy? Is it possible we might become scared to ask big questions because solving them is too expensive?

We’re already there though. Dreams of building enormous telescopes have outstripped budgets and technologies for years (just look at the OWL project). Astro2010 is perhaps a step toward reality for the funding of astronomy. But I worry that lowered expectations have a way of becoming self-fulfilling, especially when it comes to project completion dates.

Make no mistake, the LSST will do some amazing science. And heck, may be in seven years time computers across N. America will be buzzing doing analysis of the latest data!

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