Institute Participation in the Astro2010 Decadal Survey Process

Roeland P. van der Marel,, Marc Postman,, & Harry Ferguson,

Every ten years, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences performs a survey of the state and future of astronomy and astrophysics in the United States. One of the goals is to set the priorities for science and investments in the coming decade.  The previous survey was completed in 2000 under the leadership of Christopher McKee and Joseph Taylor. It led, among other things, to a positive recommendation on the scientific potential of the Next Generation Space Telescope, since renamed the James Webb Space Telescope. This year saw the start of the Astro2010 survey, led by Roger Blandford, and organized by the Council’s Board on Physics and Astronomy, in cooperation with the Space Studies Board.

This year it has been a high priority for the Institute to contribute to Astro2010 and assist in the creation of a vision for the future of astronomy in the United States. As one of the country’s leading institutions for optical and infrared astronomical research from space, the science and facilities in this subject area were a prime focus.  Nevertheless, Institute astronomers—eight of whom serve on various Astro2010 panels—have a wide range of interests and expertise. As a result, their written contributions covered almost all aspects of astronomy, including ground-based observatories, high-energy observations, theory, computing, technology, infrastructure, and the diversity and nature of the astronomical workforce. Among the large collection of community submissions to Astro2010—including activity proposals and papers on science, the state of the profession, and technology—a total of 83 documents included Institute authors, 29 as first author.

In March 2009, the Institute organized a workshop, sponsored by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, entitled “Beyond JWST: The Next Steps in UV-Optical-NIR Space Astronomy.” The goal was to engage the community in discussing its long-term goals for space-based astronomy and astrophysics. The meeting provided the community with an opportunity to look forward on a 25-year horizon to identify the scientific opportunities enabled by large and very large space telescopes. The 170 registered participants made the workshop quite a success, with lots of fruitful discussion. The workshop program was strongly science based, with topics covering: detection and characterization of exoplanets; the solar system; local galactic neighborhood; star formation and evolution; IGM and chemical evolution of the universe; galaxy formation and evolution; and cosmology: dark matter/lensing/dark energy. There were posters and short summaries on future NASA mission concepts proposals, and also on advanced technological possibilities for future telescopes. A concise summary of the presentations is described in the accompanying article on the workshop by Marc Postman. A longer summary was also submitted to the Astro2010 Survey, and is available here.

A consortium of regional astronomy and space-science institutions also hosted an Astro2010 town hall at the Johns Hopkins University (just across the road from the Institute). The Astro2010 committee had emphasized the importance of diverse, comprehensive input from the astronomical community. Town hall meetings can provide such input, especially on broad research topics that may not be ideally suited to white papers or other forms of input. The meeting was open to the public, and astronomers were encouraged to bring their ideas and opinions. The majority of the meeting was in the form of an open discussion on each of the three major themes into which Astro2010 is organized: science frontiers, infrastructure and state of the profession, and program priorities. There was time also for short, individual “open mike” statements as an additional opportunity for those whose research interests may not have been suitably covered otherwise. Representatives from Astro2010 attended. Afterwards, the organizing committee of the town hall submitted a summary of the inputs received during the meeting to Astro2010.

The scope of the science white papers submitted to the Survey by Institute astronomers spanned all of the five science panels of Astro2010, ranging from planetary systems and star formation to cosmology and fundamental physics. All the white papers submitted to the survey are available through the ADS abstract service. They provide a wonderful review of what is hot and fascinating in contemporary astronomy. As an interesting illustration, Figure 1 shows a graphical representation of the most prominent words in the white paper titles.

igure 1. Graphical representation of the most prominent words in the titles of science white papers submitted to the Astro2010 Decadal Survey. Created with the tools at

Figure 1. Graphical representation of the most prominent words in the titles of science white papers submitted to the Astro2010 Decadal Survey. Created with the tools at

The activity proposals in which Institute astronomers were involved also spanned a large range of topics and wavelengths, though primarily limited to facilities within the scope of the panel on electromagnetic observations from space. A list of all Institute contributions to Astro2010 is available here.

The state of the profession and technology papers submitted by Institute astronomers addressed several high-level infrastructure, technology, and workforce issues. These included the importance of diversifying the next generation of astronomers, using education and public outreach as a key avenue for inspiring and educating the next generation, the high impact of—and expected future demands on—data archives, the growth path for astronomical data-reduction software, and the relative prospects and benefits of ground- and space-based optical observations in the coming decades.

One paper, co-authored with representatives from the Chandra X-ray Center and the Spitzer Science Center, discussed the value of observatory-class missions. It highlights the virtues of a flexible mix of general-purpose capabilities, allowing investigations in a wide range of areas, as exemplified by Chandra, Hubble, and Spitzer. There are few areas of astrophysics that have not been profoundly affected by such facilities. Their continuing contributions—to science, the astrophysics community, and the nation—remain strong after some 33 years of combined service. These “great observatories” continue to serve as a model for what is possible when the astronomical community comes together to create a coherent vision for humanity’s progressive understanding of the Universe.