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A New 10-Year Plan for the Cosmos

A New 10-Year Plan for the Cosmos

U.S. astronomers on Thursday urged the nation to invest in a new generation of “extremely large” multibillion-dollar telescopes that will now be larger than any telescope orbiting the earth or space.

This investment requires the bailout and merger of the efforts of two rival projects, the Giant Magellan Telescope and the Thirty Meter Telescope. Once completed, these binoculars, the primary collecting mirrors of 25 and 30 meters in diameter, will be about 100 times more sensitive than any telescope currently in operation.

They allow astronomers to peek deep into the core of distant galaxies, where monstrous black holes revolve and spit energy; Investigate secrets like dark matter and dark energy; And study the planets around the stars other than the sun. Perhaps more importantly, they may present new questions about the nature of the universe.

But astronomers have struggled for years to raise enough money to fulfill their dreams. In the new proposal, the National Science Foundation will provide 1.6 billion to complete both projects and then help run them as part of a new program called the United States Extremely Large Telescope.

On Thursday, astronomers called on NASA to launch a new Great Observatory mission and technology maturation program that will develop a series of astrophysics spacecraft over the next 20 to 30 years. It will be an optical telescope larger than the first Hubble Space Telescope, and will be able to find and study Earth-like planets in the nearby cosmos – possibly habitable “exo-earths”. Only NASA can achieve this, astronomers say it could be built in 2040 and will cost 11 billion.

The two recommendations were the largest in a long-awaited, 614-page report of 2020, released Thursday by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

Every 10 years for the past 70 years, the Academy has sponsored a survey of the astronomical community to set priorities for big-ticket objects over the next decade. The Decadal Survey, as it is known, attracts the attention of Congress, NASA, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy.

Fiona A. of the California Institute of Technology. Harrison and Robert C. of the University of Arizona and Texas A&M University. This year’s effort, chaired by Kennick, Jr., took three years and resulted in dozens of meetings and discussions in each of the 13 sub-panels. Branch of astronomy. A total of 860 white papers were submitted for the survey, outlining a variety of issues that could be used to build telescopes, launch space missions, conduct experiments or observations, and address the diversity of the astronomical community.

In an interview, Dr. Harrison said his committee has tried to balance the ambitions with the time and money required for these projects. For example, a number of ideas were put forward for a space-observation spacecraft. Some were too big, some too small; Some will take centuries to implement. Instead of choosing one of these, the group asked the community and NASA to come back with the idea of ​​a six-meter diameter space telescope. (Hubble’s main mirror is 2.4 meters in diameter.)

“The six-meter telescope seems to be an achievable ambition,” said Dr. Harrison said.

“It’s an ambitious discovery by nature,” she added. “Only NASA, only the United States can do that. We believe we can do it. ”

Matt Mountain, president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, or AURA, which runs the observatory for the National Science Foundation, described the decade’s report as “very bold” in an email. “And they haven’t gone away from expressing a vision for decades, which will actually take it and it needs to take it.”

Decades of surveys have a track record of success. Both the Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990 and still in operation, and the James Webb Space Telescope – designed to be viewed at the beginning of time, and to be launched next month – have benefited from a high ranking in surveys over the past decade.

And so the results of each new survey are eagerly awaited by the astronomy and astrophysics community. “The committee is highly confidential,” Natalie Batalha, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who played a key role in NASA’s Kepler planet search mission, said in an email on the eve of the report’s release. “I haven’t heard anything, honestly. I’m waiting on pins and needles.

In its report on Thursday, the academy listed three broad scientific objectives for the next decade: the discovery of habitable planets and life; The study of black holes and neutron stars, which are responsible for the most violent phenomena in nature; And the growth and evolution of galaxies.

“Decades to come will determine the course of humanity to determine whether we are alone or not,” the report said. “Life on Earth may be the result of a normal process, or it may require an unusual circumstance that we are the only living thing in our galaxy or in the universe. Either way, the answer is profound.”

The idea of ​​a very large telescope event is ambitious, as it involves a combination of two rival projects, the Thirty Meter Telescope and the Giant Magellan Telescope, planned for the summit of the Mauna Kea in Hawaii or the Canary Islands in Spain. In Chile.

Both of these binoculars are a product of the dream of extensive international cooperation and two decades of fundraising and recruitment of partners. Either the telescope will be approximately three times larger than anything on Earth now and will be 100 times more capable of detecting distant distant stars in the cosmos; By working in concert, they can solve deep questions about the cosmos. But no project has raised enough money – more than $ 2 billion is needed to achieve its goal.

Failing to build these telescopes, the lead in geo-based astronomy will go to Europe, which is building a 39-meter telescope – the European ultra-large telescope, in the Atacama Desert of Chile – which is expected to be operational in 2027. Some astronomers have made comparisons. Cancellation of the American Superconducting Super Collider project in 1993, which gave the future of particle physics to CERN and the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva.

If the National Science Foundation invests in completing two telescopes, they will have significant time to observe them, which will be given to American astronomers.

“The two binoculars, being in opposite hemispheres and with completely different designs, would be perfectly suited for complementary investigations of the universe,” said Dr. Harrison said. “It’s impossible to imagine that the United States would not have access to it.”

Big challenges await. The Giant Magellan team has already broken ground in Chile, but progress on the 30-meter telescope has been hampered by protests and blockades by native Hawaiians and other groups. An alternative site has been designated at La Palma in the Canary Islands.

Astronomers hope that the current emphasis on infrastructure and the increasing budget of science will align the stars for their daring vision. But they are haunted by a history of cost overruns, especially with the James Webb Space Telescope, which will finally launch in December after a delay of several years, with a final price of 10 billion.

“Focusing on all of this means that JWST – the whole program will be judged on its success,” said Michael Turner, now a Cosmologist at the Cowley Foundation in Los Angeles and a veteran of the Decade Survey. “Fingers crossed.”

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