Astro2010 Open Thread

by Kelle on August 13, 2010

The US 2010 Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey (Astro2010) was released today at an eTownHall meeting. If you’re like me and not able to watch the webcast, the twitter coverage is superb: #astro2010. There’s also a nice post by Julianne and a discussion going on at Cosmic Variance. Slides are available for download for the Astro2010 page and the entire webcast will be available in a couple days.

So let’s hear it…What do you think of the report? What are you happiest about? What bummed you out the most? Got questions? Sound off in the comments.


1 Tanya August 13, 2010 at 12:55 pm

Kinda sad about X-ray astronomy as it was my first foray into astronomy. I do feel like the Americans will need some sort of ROSAT wake-up call again, like they did in the 90s.

I think the SKA was always way too ambitious, but maybe should’ve warranted the risk.

So overall I think they were too cautious. The priority they gave LSST was only because it didn’t involve much risk, so it was easy. Most the other missions they mentioned were well on their way or designed with a specific small goal in mind. Unfortunately being too risk averse will not give you the big rewards.

WFIRST (I didn’t even know they changed the name) was the big winner!

2 Gus August 13, 2010 at 1:01 pm

I’m not sure that the frequent characterization of astronomy as marching toward a high energy physics future of big science and single point failures is validated by this report.

It seems like they have identified the toughest (or at least least constrained) astrophysical problems and propose solving (some) of them with the most mature technology possible.

Further, the biggest projects are large surveys where in the case of LSST the data dissemination plan does a lot of things except require “big” science collaborations to be on the cutting edge.

3 Mark Marley August 13, 2010 at 1:41 pm

I spent 2 years on the Exoplanet Task Force and they basically discarded our recommendations. Delaying a big coronagraph (TPF) is probably the right decision, but SIMLite didn’t make the cut:
‎”In considering possible exoplanet missions for the next decade, the committee gave serious consideration to SIMLite but decided against recommending it. SIMLite is technically mature and would provide an important new capability (interferometry). Through precision astrometry it could characterize the architectures of 50 or so nearby planetary systems, provide targets for future imaging missions, and carry out other interesting astrophysics measurements. However, the committee considered that its large cost (appraised by the CATE process at $1.9 billion) and long time to launch (estimated at 8.5 years) make it uncompetitive in the rapidly changing field of exoplanet science. ”

I can see where they are coming from, but without a method for determining masses (some SIM variant) we will never fully characterize any single planet with the program that they lay out for exoplanets. Instead the recommended exoplanet program focuses on statistical “architectures” from a variety of approaches, but ultimately planets are more than sets of idealized masses on springs.

4 Keivan Stassun August 13, 2010 at 3:04 pm

I was pleased to see the seriousness and prominence with which the issue of increasing minority representation in astronomy is addressed in the report. The issue appears as one of the conclusions/recommendations in the Executive Summary, and is discussed in specific detail in Chapter 4, pp. 19-20. Much of the language and supporting data here clearly benefited from the position papers submitted by the AAS Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy. The Astro2010 report will influence the field for the next 10 years, so it *matters* that this issue received prominence and voice in this document.

5 Erin August 13, 2010 at 5:43 pm

I have to say I’m actually a bit disappointed in the review in the context which we saw in the webcast.

For example: the mention of exoplanets with respect to WFIRST feels like it was tagged on as an afterthought because otherwise they got virtually no respect in the decadal. Is it going to be expected that they (the exoplanet researchers) are going to be better covered in the Planetary Science decadal which comes out next spring? The exoplanet folks have been able to great things with transits from Spitzer, so I’ve gotta hope that WFIRST covers 3.5 and 4.5 microns for them. I do find myself questioning the mission because it’s stated that they’ll use some of the same wavelengths as JWST, then what’s the point of launching something in the same year that does the same wavelengths but is smaller? (yes I know ability to bang out a huge survey field, but if you want to do exoplanet transits, you probably want controlled pointings to get timings right)

And I think the concentration on lab astrophysics for molecular lines etc for ALMA and friends is interesting, but also it’s forgetting that some of the exoplanet/planet formation studies are hindered by spectra of “dust” that has inappropriate particles sizes in the databases these days, let alone a very limited selection of compositions. Admittedly powdering the heck out of rocks and taking mid-IR spectra of them isn’t sexy, but it could really use to be done.

As a grad student, I have to say I wasn’t impressed with the response to the question afterwards about professional development. Quoting statistics doesn’t really fill me with awe, rather I saw the response as a non answer and an attempt to push such issues onto individual departments. Someone has clearly recieved press training on how to properly avoid answering the question entirely.

I’m not really finding the overall report all that illuminating today, though I’ve heard through the gossip-ish mill that individual panels will have reports released later this month and I’ll be curious if they have a better discussion of the thought process behind the ranking of individual projects.

6 Matthew Kenworthy August 14, 2010 at 2:08 am

SIM and TPF getting toasted was harsh, but not completely surprising. The writing’s been on the wall for a couple of years now – but, microlensing? I initially suspected that that was just a nod to keep exoplanet people happy, and it’s a natural byproduct for the WFIRST data set. I guess we’ll see lots of ‘one off’ Earth detections and we will get a very well determined eta Earth number for SETI people. Hmmm, thinking about it, this makes a weird kind of sense. You’ll get a much better handle on how many Earths you’ll image with SIM/TPF in 2025….

So, it’s all hands to the 30m class telescopes for exoplanet imaging and characterization then.

.. having no X-ray and UV space missions is going to be very tough. I’m wondering if we’ll see a boost back in rocketry based science again, like the seventies and eighties. Developments in technology mean that will be a much cheaper way to get that data.

Good to see LSST get the thumbs up, a shame that TMT and GMT will have to fight it out but that was also going to happen too. With an E-ELT in the pipeline that will be an incentive to keep that going too.

7 Bruce August 14, 2010 at 2:31 pm

It’s unlikely that exoplanet missions will get significant love from the planetary-science decadal survey – the planetary science community has already moved to exclude exoplanets from the Discovery program line (which was what paid for Kepler, and the only NASA PI-led program big enough for substantial exoplanet missions.)

8 shawndgoldman August 17, 2010 at 5:30 pm

The planetary sciences decadal survey is going to be limited to planets in this solar system that don’t have humans currently living on them. So don’t expect any exoplanet related stuff there.

9 Norman Sleep, Stanford University Geophysics August 17, 2010 at 6:44 pm

It would help like with FIGURE 4.4 to explicitly state when figures like this (I think) have enhanced color. That is, one would not see such color contrast in an optical telescope with eye. It would also help to have false color explicitly stated in figures.

Women were formally barred from being observers on big telescopes in my lifetime. It would help to state this explicitly. I did not find link at NRC/NAS to submit brief comments.

Norm Sleep

10 KT August 20, 2010 at 1:06 pm

1. Habitable exoplanets was a big science goal, yet the two big ground and space projects (LSST and WFIRST) would both only be able to do microlensing planets, which is a constrained parameter space and does not allow follow-up for characterization. Kind of a mis-match between the science goal and the missions.

2. N.d.T. gave some excellent/compelling arguments about astronomy/planetaria being a gateway to science for the public, but then went on to propagate the myth that we need more people in STEM careers– he’s frequently in the public eye and I didn’t expect this from him. On the other hand, at least the Astro2010 report acknowledges the PhD over-production in Astronomy but only suggests departments steer their grads into non-research-track options. What about departments taking some responsibility for the problem, as my department is increasing the number of grad students by 50% while making no changes in the number of jobs at the top? I feel the response from Astro2010 on this issue was sorely lacking, as policy could be changed to re-balance the junior and senior positions in astronomy to steady-state vs. Ponzi/pyramid. (For more about this problem, see this article from AstroBetter links posted 8/20: “Career Advice: Stop Admitting PhD Students” )

11 David W. Hogg August 25, 2010 at 7:28 am

Keivan: I agree, the discussion of astronomers from under-represented groups is great, and the need is clearly articulated there. My problem is that the recommendation is still vague. I hope that vague recommendation can be capitalized on by movers like you.

My question is: does this mean a NASA call for proposals to assemble the WFIRST team?

12 Kelle September 10, 2010 at 10:25 am

For some reason, this post is getting targeted with a crap load of spam which is taking up too much time for me to moderate. (maybe it’s because it’s “open thread”?) Since the discussion has waned, I’m closing the comments…

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