High-Definition Space Telescope: Our Giant Glimpse of the Future?

Where do you see yourself in a decade? What is your vision for two decades from now? What could you accomplish if you had billions of dollars and infrastructure at your disposal? A consortium of astrophysicists attempt to answer these questions as they put forward their bold proposal for a giant high-resolution telescope for the next generation, which would observe numerous exoplanets, stars, galaxies and the distant universe in stunning detail.

Artist’s conception of proposed proposed High-Definition Space Telescope, which would have a giant segmented mirror and unprecedented resolution at optical and UV wavelengths. (NASA/GSFC)

Artist’s conception of proposed proposed High-Definition Space Telescope, which would have a giant segmented mirror and unprecedented resolution at optical and UV wavelengths. (NASA/GSFC)

The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), an influential organization of astronomers from 39 mostly US-based institutions, which operates telescopes and observatories for NASA and the National Science Foundation, lays out its vision of High-Definition Space Telescope (HDST) in a new report this month. Julianne Dalcanton of the University of Washington and Sara Seager of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—veteran astronomers with impressive knowledge and experience with galactic and planetary science—led the committee who researched and wrote the 172-page report.

As the HDST’s name suggests, its wide segmented mirror would give it much much higher resolution than any current or upcoming telescopes, allowing astronomers to focus on exoplanets up to 100 light-years away, resolve stars even in the Andromeda Galaxy, and image faraway galaxies dating back 10 billion years of cosmic time into our universe’s past.

A simulated spiral galaxy as viewed by Hubble and the proposed High Definition Space Telescope at a lookback time of approximately 10 billion years. Image credit: D. Ceverino, C. Moody, G. Snyder, and Z. Levay (STScI)

A simulated spiral galaxy as viewed by Hubble and the proposed High Definition Space Telescope at a lookback time of approximately 10 billion years. Image credit: D. Ceverino, C. Moody, G. Snyder, and Z. Levay (STScI)

In the more recent past, the popular and outstandingly successful Hubble Space Telescope celebrated its 25th birthday a few months ago. Astronomers utilized Hubble and its instruments over the years to obtain the now iconic images of the Crab Nebula, the Sombrero Galaxy, the Ultra Deep Field, and many many others that captured the public imagination. Hubble continues to merrily float by in low-earth orbit and enables cutting-edge science. But the telescope required 20 years of planning, technological development, and budget allocations before it was launched in 1990.

For the newly proposed space telescope, some headlines describe it as NASA’s successor to Hubble, but it really constitutes a successor to a successor of Hubble, with other telescopes in between (such as the Wide-Field InfraRed Survey Telescope, WFIRST). If the astronomical community comes on board and if astronomers convince NASA and Congressional committees to fund it—two big “ifs” for big projects like this—it likely would be designed and constructed in the 2020s and then launched in the 2030s.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), proposed two decades ago by AURA and now finally reaching fruition and set for launching in 2018, could be considered the HDST’s predecessor. All of these major projects require many years of planning and research; Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say. James Webb scientists and engineers hope that, like Hubble, it will produce spectacular images with its infrared cameras, become a household name, and expand our understanding of the universe. Nevertheless, JWST has been plagued by a ballooning budget and numerous delays, and Congress nearly terminated it in 2011. When a few large-scale programs cost so many billions of dollars and years to develop, how do people weigh them against many smaller-scale ones that sometimes get sacrificed?

Approximately every ten years, members of the astronomical community get together and determine their set of priorities for the next decade, balancing large-, medium- and small-scale programs and ground- and space-based telescopes, given the budget realities and outlook. Back in 2001, they prioritized James Webb, and then a decade later they put WFIRST at the top of the list. For the next generation though, in the 2010 Decadal Survey (named “New Worlds, New Horizons”), they highlighted the need for a habitable (exo)planet imaging mission. Everyone loves planets, even dwarf planets, as revealed by the popularity of NASA’s missions exploring Pluto and Ceres this year.

Building on that report, NASA’s 2014 Astrophysics Roadmap (named “Enduring Quests, Daring Visons”) argued that much could be gained from a UV/optical/infrared surveyor with improved resolution, which could probe stars and galaxies with more precision than ever before. According to the AURA committee, the High-Definition Space Telescope would achieve both of these goals, taking planetary, stellar and galactic astronomy to the next level. Importantly, they also argued that astronomers should prioritize the telescope in the 2020 Decadal Survey, for which planning has already commenced.

How do scientists balance the need for different kinds and sizes of projects and missions, knowing that every good idea can’t be funded? Astronomers frequently disagree about how to best allocate funding—hence the need for periodic surveys of the community. They hope that what is best for science and the public will emerge, even if some scientists’ favorite projects ultimately aren’t successful. James Webb Space Telescope’s budget has been set to $8 billion, while the High-Definition Space Telescope would cost $10 billion or more, according to Alan Dressler of the Carnegie Observatories. This is big money, but it’s small compared to the cost of bank bailouts and military expenditures, for example. While the scientific community assesses which programs to focus on, we as a society need to determine our own priorities and how space exploration, astrophysics research as well as education and outreach are important to us. In the meantime, HDST scientists will continue to make their case, including in an upcoming event at the SPIE Optics & Photonics conference in San Diego, which I will try to attend.

Scientists and journalists alike frequently talk about Big Science these days. The recently published and much reviewed book by Michael Hiltzik about the physicist Ernest Lawrence describes its history since the Manhattan Project and the advent of ever-bigger particle accelerators. Big Science is here to stay and we clearly have much to gain from it. Only some Big Science ideas can be prioritized and successfully make the most of the effort and investment people put in them. Hubble exceeded all expectations; the High-Definition Space Telescope has astronomical shoes to fill.

New Discoveries as New Horizons Flies by Pluto!

You may be wondering, what’s the deal with Pluto? First, astronomers demote Pluto’s planetary status in a controversial move, to say the least, and then NASA sends a spacecraft on a mission to observe it in detail? Why is this important, and what could we learn about Pluto that we didn’t know already?

Image from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, taken on 13 July 2015. Pluto is dominated by the feature informally named the "Heart." (Image Credit: NASA/APL/SwRI)

Image from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, taken on 13 July 2015. Pluto is dominated by the feature informally named the “Heart.” (Image Credit: NASA/APL/SwRI)

Of course, we have quite a bit to learn. Moreover, as one of the least studied objects in the outer regions of our solar system, Pluto is ripe for exploration and investigation. Within a few days, NASA’s New Horizons probe already produced detailed and exquisite photos of Pluto, much better than has been done with Hubble or any other telescope. Its mission is far from over, but it’s already an amazing success and has inspired public interest in space exploration once again.

Back in 1930, 85 years ago, a young astronomer by the name of Clyde Tombaugh at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona noticed a distant possibly planet-like object moving across photographic plates. When other astronomers confirmed the discovery, thousands of people suggested names for the planet. In the end, the name that caught on in the community came from an 11-year-old girl in Oxford, Venetia Burney, and the Lowell astronomers approved “Pluto” unanimously. (Contrary to some rumors, she did not name it after the cartoon dog.) Burney (later Phair) lived to witness the launching of New Horizons, but she passed away in 2009. Some of Tombaugh’s ashes are aboard the spacecraft, and his children and grandchildren were present for the events of New Horizons.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft.  (Artist's impression.)

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft.
(Artist’s impression.)

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral in January 2006. Its journey took it 3 billion miles (about 5 billion km) from Earth, including a slingshot around Jupiter—covering nearly 1 million miles per day!—to reach Pluto. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, you may think it’s a long way to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts compared to the distance New Horizons traveled. Principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado leads the mission, which also includes a relatively large fraction of women on the team. In another important point, the mission had a relatively small cost ($700M) considering its huge impact on planetary physics, space exploration, and science outreach.

Once Pluto was demoted (or even dissed) by the astronomical community back in 2006, it’s never been more popular! New Horizons’ flyby only rekindled interest in Pluto in popular culture. I’ve seen many comics, memes and jokes about it, including XKCD, a cartoon showing Neil deGrasse Tyson and Pluto giving each other the finger, a cartoon with a sad Pluto as New Horizons flies by while saying “HEYWHATSUPGOTTAGOBYE!,” and another cartoon with Pluto saying, “So you dumped me years ago, but now you’re driving by my house real slow?”

As I wrote in a previous post, Pluto has many characteristics, including its small size and mass, that give it a questionable planetary status. It is one of many objects hurtling about the edge of our solar system called the Kuiper Belt, named after Dutch-American astronomer Gerard Kuiper. According to the International Astronomical Union (IAU), these are some of the solar system’s non-planets, ranked by size: Ganymede (Jupiter moon), Titan (Saturn moon), Callisto (Jupiter moon), Io (Jupiter moon), Earth’s moon, Europa (Jupiter moon), Triton (Neptune moon), Pluto, and Eris. Much further down the list comes Ceres (in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter), which is actually smaller than Charon, one of Pluto’s moons. Eris, which was previously known as 2003 UB313 (and also as Planet X, and then Xena, as in the Warrior Princess) is slightly more massive than Pluto. In addition to Pluto, Eris, and Ceres, Haumea (a trans-Neptunian object) and Makemake (another Kuiper Belt object) are the other two dwarf planets the IAU recognizes. In any case, Pluto may be small and may be less unique than we thought and may have an abnormally elliptical orbit, but we all love it anyway.

New Horizons made its closest approach on 14 July, Tuesday morning, about 50 years after the first spacecraft landed on Mars, Mariner 4. It will take many months for New Horizons to transmit all of the Pluto flyby data back to Earth, but what has the probe discovered so far? First, New Horizons already obtained the most detailed images of Pluto ever. Second, based on the imagery, astronomers calculated that Pluto is slightly larger than previously thought: it turns out to have a radius 1.9% larger than Eris’s, making it the largest dwarf planet.

New Horizons scientists also found that Pluto is icier than previously thought, with its polar ice cap and with icy mountains nearly as high as the Rockies. The ice consists of a frozen mixture of methane, ethane, carbon monoxide and nitrogen—not the sort of thing you’d want to put in a drink. Pluto’s mountains likely formed less than 100 million years ago, which is a relatively short time in the history of a (dwarf) planet. At least some of Pluto’s surface might still be geologically active today—some scientists think they have spotted potential geysers as well—but planetary physicists are not sure about what could have caused this activity. Furthermore, Pluto exhibits very few impact craters from Kuiper belt objects (KBOs), which would also be consistent with recent geological activity.

Charon also lacks such craters—a surprising observation considering that it appears to have no atmosphere. Charon’s diameter is over half of Pluto’s, which makes it big enough to cause Pluto to wobble as it orbits. Scientists believe that Charon likely formed from a huge collision with a young Pluto, and debris also settled into Pluto’s four other moons: Nix, Hydra, Kerberos, and Styx. Alternatively, Pluto could have gravitationally captured Charon a few hundred million years ago, which could explain the “tidal interactions” between them.

Finally, New Horizons astronomers discovered vast frozen craterless plains in the center of Pluto’s “heart,” which they have informally named the “Tombaugh Regio.” The plains region has a broken surface of irregularly-shaped segments that either may be due to the contraction of surface materials, like when mud dries, or may be the result of convection. The New Horizons team released the following zoom-in images at a press conference today, and we expect more to come.

What’s next for New Horizons? The probe continues to send more valuable data from its seven instruments in our general direction. Project scientists will sift through these data to try to learn more about Pluto and Charon’s surface, geology, and atmosphere, and therefore to infer how these interesting objects formed and evolved. In the meantime, New Horizons continues on its merry way throughout the Kuiper Belt. Assuming NASA approves funding for its extended mission, in a couple years it will use its limited fuel to investigate much smaller and newly discovered KBOs, such as 2014 MT69. In any case, we shall keep in touch with New Horizons as it follows the Voyager spacecrafts into the outskirts of our solar system and boldly ventures beyond.

[For further reading, you can find great coverage about these exciting discoveries in many places. For example, take a look at Nature (Alexandra Witze), Science, Scientific American, National Geographic (Nadia Drake), Wired, NBC (Alan Boyle), as well as New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Guardian, BBC, etc… For the most up-to-date information, I suggest taking a look at NASA’s website and the Planetary Society (Emily Lakdawalla).]

Dispute Continues between Astronomers and Native Hawaiians about Thirty Meter Telescope

The conflict over Mauna Kea, where astronomers seek to build one of the world’s largest telescopes and where Native Hawaiians consider sacred ground, continues. The situation escalated in early April when protesters, defending their land and angry about their concerns being ignored, managed to stop construction on the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), which was planned to be built by 2024 and begin detailed observations of distant galaxies and other objects at optical-infrared wavelengths.

Native Hawaiians protesting the Thirty Meter Telescope. (Credit: AP Photo/Anne Keala Kelly)

Native Hawaiians protesting the Thirty Meter Telescope. (Credit: AP Photo/Anne Keala Kelly)

After police arrested 31 peaceful protesters for blocking the road to the summit, the new Hawaii governor, David Ige, called for a temporary halt to construction of the telescope on 7 April. “This will give us some time to engage in further conversations with the various stakeholders that have an interest in Mauna Kea and its sacredness and its importance in scientific research and discovery going forward,” Ige said. The situation remains at an impasse, and he extended the construction moratorium multiple times since then.

Artist's rendition of the planned Thirty Meter Telescope. (Credit: TMT/Associated Press)

Artist’s rendition of the planned Thirty Meter Telescope. (Credit: TMT/Associated Press)

This is only the latest battle in an ongoing dispute. (See my previous post on the TMT and protests last fall.) Astronomers have found that Mauna Kea, on Hawaii’s Big Island, is an ideal place to build ground-based telescopes because of its “seeing” statistics. Optical and infrared images are less distorted by light traveling through the atmosphere here than in many other places. Although many indigenous Hawaiians have allowed smaller telescopes to be built on the mountain, it becomes more controversial as astronomers try to construct more and larger telescopes on these protected lands which hold a great cultural importance for them. The TMT also drew opposition from celebrities of Native Hawaiian descent, including Jason Mamoa (Khal Drogo on Game of Thrones), who encouraged others to join the protests.

In addition, the protests drew more media attention than the last time, during the ground-breaking. For example, see these excellent articles by Azeen Ghorayshi on Buzzfeed and Alexandra Witze in Nature, as well as other articles in Science, New Scientist, and NPR. George Johnson also discussed the protests in the New York Times, though his column clearly sides with the TMT.

Supported by US and international universities as well as the National Science Foundation (in the form of “partnership-planning activities”), the TMT is the primary 30-meter-class telescope given priority by the US astronomical community in the 2010 Decadal Survey and highlighted in a recent National Research Council report. The other two planned telescopes in that class include the European-Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) led by the European Southern Observatory and the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) led by an international consortium of universities, both of which are under construction in northern Chile. All three telescopes are scheduled to have “first light” in the early 2020s. During the planning phase of the TMT, in addition to Mauna Kea, astronomers considered other possible locations as well, also including northern Chile and Baja California, Mexico.

The Native Hawaiian position is not monolithic, but some groups oppose the construction of the TMT and others would support it if negotiations took place in good faith and with respect and not only in Western spaces. The protesters are not a small minority, and they don’t believe that their voices have been heard. Many Hawaiians make it clear that they are not against science or astronomy; for example, the Mauna Kea Protectors “[take] a stand specifically against scientific practices that do a lot of damage—to our planet, to traditional native cultures, and to public health and safety.”

They and others make arguments on cultural, environmental, and legal grounds. If built, the TMT would dominate the landscape as it would rise 18 stories above the mountain, at an elevation of 4200m, and would disturb a large area of its slope. Moreover, the Mauna Kea summit lies within a conservation district, and therefore according to Hawaiian law certain (arguably unsatisfied) criteria must be met before construction there. Finally and most importantly, many believe that Mauna Kea is a sacred and special place that must be protected, and those beliefs have not been sufficiently respected by the authorities. (For more information, see here and here.)

The official position can be found on the TMT website and at Mauna Kea and TMT. Furthermore, Claire Max, Interim Director of UC Observatories, recently made an official statement promoting the latter as a source for information “with links to balanced news stories about the project and the protests” and that “TMT…[has] profound regard for Hawaii’s culture, environment and people.”

The TMT does have support among some native Hawaiians, and TMT authorities have set up a $1 million annual scholarship fund, named The Hawaii Island New Knowledge (THINK) Fund, which will be administered by the Hawaii Community Foundation. They have initiated a Workforce Pipeline Program in Hawaii as well. Like the Hawaiian organizations, they insist that they have the law on their side, but unlike them, they refer to the TMT as a done deal and fait accompli rather than as the subject of an ongoing dispute. According to the University of Hawaii position, “more than 20 public hearings have been held during the process and the project has been approved by then Governor Neil Abercrombie, the UH Board of Regents and the Board of Land and Natural Resources…The project has also cleared legal challenges and was upheld in the Third Circuit Court.”

From what I have seen, this dispute has generated heated debates in the astronomical community in various social media. For example, in the “Diversity in Physics and Astronomy” Facebook group (with 1700 members), astronomers made more posts and comments about the TMT and protests than about any other issue over the past few months. Astronomers expressed a wide range of views on Twitter as well, some of which were highlighted recently by Emily Lakdawalla’s Storify timeline, “Astronomy Progress is Not Universal.”

Like many astronomers and astrophysicists, I’m torn. While the TMT would be a boon for science and scientists, especially those who study galaxies, supernovae, stars, and planets, that is not the only criterion by which such a project should be evaluated. The state of Hawaii and the United States in general have a long history of colonialism and disrespect for indigenous peoples and cultures, and unfortunately the TMT risks falling onto the wrong side of that history. For now, I think that the moratorium on construction should continue and substantial negotiations should take place, and if that delays the schedule, so be it. If more native Hawaiians and organizations do not decide to support the TMT, the astronomical community should consider a different site or even terminate the telescope altogether. I realize that the cost of either action would be great, considering the huge international investment that has already taken place, but the price of desecrating native Hawaiians’ sacred and protected land is much higher.

I see strong opinions on each side, and many have distributed petitions and sought to gain more public and media support. How will astronomers and Hawaiians proceed? I hope that they will use this time to discuss the situation with respect and as equals, and they may determine whether a resolution that satisfies many eventually can be achieved.

Challenges of the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s Successor to Hubble

Everyone grows up eventually. It’s hard to believe, but the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), which many astronomers and astronomy fans consider to be one of the most important telescopes of our generation, turns 25 this month. Hubble, built and funded by NASA and the European Space Agency, was launched on 24th April 1990, only a half year after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Its instruments produced numerous iconic images, including the spectacular ones below.

Everyone is celebrating this anniversary! Check out hubble25th.org for more images, news, and information. The 2010 documentary, “Saving Hubble,” is now viewable for free. Plus, in a public lecture on 1st April as part of National Academies’ Space Science Week, Jason Kalirai (Space Telescope Science Institute) highlighted Hubble’s many scientific contributions.

Crab Nebula (Credit: Hubble Space Telescope)

Crab Nebula (Credit: Hubble Space Telescope)

Galaxy M83 (HST)

Galaxy M83 (HST)

Ultra Deep Field (HST)

Ultra Deep Field (HST)

Now astronomers and the astronomy-loving public are anticipating and preparing for Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST, named after a former NASA administrator). Over its ambitious 5 to 10-year mission (a Star Trek-style time-scale!), its powerful cameras and spectrometers will focus on near- to mid-infrared wavelengths and will examine planetary systems in our galaxy as well as distant galaxies forming in the early universe, only a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. As you can see, it’s built with a folding segmented mirror and a deployable sunshield. It’s not servicable like Hubble was, as JWST will orbit one million miles from Earth.

Artist's impression of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope.

Artist’s impression of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.

As I’ve written in previous posts, JWST’s gigantic budget has been contentious in the astronomical community. While astronomers believe that JWST will likely have a big scientific impact, especially on the fields of planetary physics and galaxy formation, others are unhappy that its cost inevitably results in smaller programs being cut. NASA officials prioritize the missions and programs the agency invests in, and it is simply not feasible to fund every exciting project astronomers propose. (JWST’s budget constituted nearly half of NASA’s astrophysics budget for FY 2015.) Based on my conversations with astronomers, the community remains divided about JWST, though many astronomers are excited about the telescope and note its importance for public outreach.

Credit: NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz

Credit: NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz

Large projects rarely stay on schedule and on budget in astrophysics, but JWST was perhaps an extreme case. A decade ago, JWST faced considerable criticism, such as in this Nature article by Lee Billings, because of its many delays and cost overruns. But after much pressure and threats from Congress to cancel the program, NASA officials rebaselined JWST’s budget and conducted a management overhaul in 2011. Since then, scientists have kept JWST within its new $8.8-billion budget and the telescope is on schedule for launch in 2018.

Last Tuesday, the House Science Committee held a hearing reviewing JWST’s progress, called “Searching for the Origins of the Universe: An Update on the Progress of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).” According to the American Institute of Physics, the committee’s Chair and Ranking Member, Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS) and Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), “expressed, as did other subcommittee members, great interest in and support for the telescope.” According to Cristina Chaplain of the Government Accountability Office, JWST has ten months of unused budget reserves, which will be more than enough as it moves into the integration and testing phase.

A few challenges remain. For example, technicians have had difficulty with a “cryocooler” component, which needs to operate at much colder temperatures than other such units in order to keep the Mid-Infrared Instrument sufficiently cool, but it is still scheduled to be delivered this summer. In any case, both John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, and John Mather, JWST’s Senior Project Scientist, expressed confidence to the Committee that this observatory will launch in 2018. “Expect amazing discoveries,” Mather said.

For more coverage, take a look at these articles in Scientific American, Space News, and Space.com. [Full disclosure: I am a member of the American Institute of Physics, and former colleagues at the University of Arizona helped design JWST’s NIRCam instrument.]

Nine New Dwarfs Discovered in Our Local Group of Galaxies

Just as astronomers are examining dwarf planets, they’re investigating dwarf galaxies too. Two weeks ago, an international collaboration of scientists with the Dark Energy Survey (DES) peered around the southern hemisphere and announced in a paper in the Astrophysical Journal that they found candidates for nine new “satellite” galaxies around our Milky Way. For those of you keeping count—and many people are—if confirmed, this means that we now have 35 satellites in our Local Group of galaxies, which could even tell us something about the dark matter out there.

An illustration of the previously discovered dwarf satellite galaxies (in blue) and the newly discovered candidates (in red) as they sit outside the Milky Way. (Image: Yao-Yuan Mao, Ralf Kaehler, Risa Wechsler.)

An illustration of the previously discovered dwarf satellite galaxies (in blue) and the newly discovered candidates (in red) as they sit outside the Milky Way. (Image: Yao-Yuan Mao, Ralf Kaehler, Risa Wechsler.)

The smallest known galaxies (as might be inferred from their name), dwarf galaxies are extremely faint and difficult to detect, sometimes only containing a few hundred stars and appearing to blend in with the stars in the disk of the Milky Way. They can also be difficult to distinguish from globular clusters, which are just clumps of stars that evolved with a galaxy and orbit around its core.

Astrophysicists refer to galaxies that travel around a larger galaxy as “satellite” galaxies. In many cases, these galaxies were previously floating through space, minding their own business, until the gravitational force of the massive galaxy pulled them in. Some astronomers think that that is what happened to the Small Magellanic Cloud and Large Magellanic Cloud, the brightest satellites of the Milky Way. (The Persian astronomer Abd-al-Rahman Al-Sufi discovered the LMC in 964 A.D., and it does sort of look like a “cloud.”) To give these satellites some perspective, they’re mostly between 100,000-200,000 light-years away, while the Milky Way’s radius is about 50,000 light-years, which is already much longer than the road to the chemist’s.

Keith Bechtol (University of Chicago) and Sergey Koposov (University of Cambridge) led parallel studies with the DES, which uses an optical/infrared instrument on a telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in the Chilean mountains. “The discovery of so many satellites in such a small area of the sky was completely unexpected,” says Koposov. These findings only include the first-year data of the DES though, and the research team stands poised to discover as many as two dozen more satellite galaxies as they continue their survey.

Six of the nine newly discovered dwarf satellite galaxies. (V. Belokurov, S. Koposov. Photo: Y. Beletsky.)

Six of the nine newly discovered dwarf satellite galaxies. (V. Belokurov, S. Koposov. Photo: Y. Beletsky.)

In 2005-2006, Koposov and his colleagues (Vasily Belokurov, Beth Willman, and others) found about half of the previously detected satellite galaxies of the Milky Way with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), the DES’s predecessor in the northern hemisphere. The SDSS and DES are powerful enough to detect and resolve faint dwarf galaxies that hadn’t been observed before, transforming this field and stimulating interest in the Milky Way’s neighborhood.

Dwarf galaxies could reveal new information about dark matter, since their mass in stars is outweighed by thousands of times by the mass of dark matter particles surrounding them. Astrophysicists developing numerical simulations of growing clumps of dark matter, thought to host galaxies within them, have been concerned that more satellite clumps form in the simulations than satellite galaxies have been observed in the Milky Way–a discrepancy referred to as the “missing satellites” problem. It’s not clear yet whether the newly discovered satellite galaxy candidates could solve or complicate this problem. Moreover, astrophysicists continue to worry about other problems, including disagreements between observed galaxies and simulations involving the masses and angular momenta of dark matter clumps. In any case, scientists working with the DES continue to push the debate further, and their ongoing survey will be of great interest to the astronomical community.

A simulated dark matter "halo" with satellites, possibly similar to the Milky Way. (Credit: Volker Springel, Aquarius Simulation.)

A simulated dark matter “halo” with satellites, possibly similar to the Milky Way. (Credit: Volker Springel, Aquarius Simulation.)

For more coverage, check out this article by Monica Young in Sky & Telescope and articles in Wired and Washington Post. If you’re interested, you can also see my own earlier research on satellite galaxies in dark matter models and on the Magellanic Clouds.

Science Policy at the American Astronomical Society: NASA, National Science Foundation, New Telescopes

Following my previous post, here I’ll write about some science policy-related talks, events, and news at the American Astronomical Society meeting two weeks ago.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

As we saw in President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, NASA’s sending Scott Kelly to join Mikhail Kornienko for a 1-year mission at the International Space Station, where they and their crewmates will carry out numerous research experiments and work on technology development. This could help toward sending manned missions to Mars in the future, which would involve much longer periods in space. Of course, actually getting to Mars involves many other challenges too; and let’s remember that the ISS has an orbit height of about 431 km while the closest distance between Earth and Mars is 54.6 million km–about 100,000 times further away. Reaching Mars is clearly an ambitious goal, but it’s achievable in the long term. (For SOTU coverage, check out these articles in Science and Universe Today.) The new budget extends the life of the ISS until at least 2024, “which is essential to achieving the goals of sending humans to deep space destinations and returning benefits to humanity through research and technology development.” The ISS accounts for most of NASA’s space operations budget, but that only accounts for a few percent of NASA’s total budget, which includes many other activities and missions.

The NASA Town Hall began with with an update on its budget for 2015, and if you’re interested in the details, take a look at my previous post. One important change is that education will not take up 1% of every project as before; instead, the new budget requires that educational activities be centralized in the Science Mission Directorate (SMD).

photo

The National Academies, which include the National Academy of Sciences, organize a massive effort every decade for leaders in the astronomy and astrophysics community to prioritize their goals and challenges and to make recommendations about what kinds of large-, medium-, and small-scale projects should have funding and resources invested in them. The Decadal Survey for 2010-2020, “New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics”, is detailed and well-organized, and you can view it online. It’s complementary to the European Space Agency’s (ESA) “Cosmic Visions” programme for 2015-2025. Astronomers have produced these surveys since the 1970s, and other fields are catching on too; for example, the 2015-2025 decadal survey of ocean sciences just came out today.

The NASA spokesperson pointed out that previous Decadal Survey missions—Hubble, Chandra, and Spitzer—have now become household names, and the James Webb Space Telescope and Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope will too. JWST will be great for astronomy and for outreach, but it is nonetheless extremely expensive and over budget, which implies that some smaller projects won’t be funded. According to this detailed article by Lee Billings, JWST is taking an ever-increasing fraction of NASA’s astrophysics budget, and based on the presentation at the town hall, it looks like that will continue for the next few years. In the meantime, WFIRST’s budget will start ramping up soon too.

In other news, at the AAS meeting we also heard updates about research grants in 2014 through NASA’s funding of Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) funding. The Astrophysics Data Analysis Program (ADAP) was funded at $7.5M last year with a 21% proposal success rate, and the Astrophysics Theory Program (ATP) was funded at $3.5M with a 11% success rate. I didn’t catch the stats for the other programs, such as those involving exoplanet research and instrumentation. Grant funding levels have been pretty flat for the past four fiscal years, but because of the increasing number proposals, the selection rate keeps decreasing. Theoretical astrophysicists will be dismayed that no ATP proposals will be solicited in 2015, but they say that there has been no reduction in funding, just a delay.

cost-big

There were also interesting sessions about education and public outreach (E/PO) and Program Analysis Groups (PAGs) too, and I suggest checking out those links if you want more information and resources.

National Science Foundation (NSF)

I also attended the NSF town hall, and similar to the NASA one, was primarily about budget issues. The NSF budget fared alright for fiscal year 2015 and appears to be between the pessimistic and optimistic scenarios they envisioned. NSF is pursuing partnerships with universities, other institutions, and federal agencies on some projects, such as a NASA-NSF partnership on exoplanet research. NSF analysts expect an approximately flat budget out to 2019, but that could change. They’re already preparing for FY 2016, and the President’s Budget Request will come out in the near future.

For the division of astronomical sciences (AST), NSF research grant proposals had a success rate of 15-16% for both 2013 and 2014. Nonetheless, as with NASA, there appears to be a long-term decreasing trend; in 2002, the success rate was 38%. And as with NASA, this is mostly due to increasing numbers of proposals, and they’re starting to restrict the number of proposals submitted per investigator and per institution. They’re also developing strategies in case success rates drop below 10%, which would be a dire situation. I’ve been funded by NSF grants myself, and it’s stressful for faculty, research scientists, and grad students when proposals are rejected so often.

The NSF spokesperson briefly mentioned NSF “rotator” positions, which are temporary program directors who work at the NSF and collaborate with many people on a variety of policy and budget issues. The astronomical sciences has such a program, and if you want more information about it, look here.

The NSF also funds major telescopes, including the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) in Hawaii, and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), also in Chile. As you may know, scientists are making progress with ALMA and have obtained interesting results already (see below). DKIST is under construction, and construction will begin on LSST later this year. In NSF’s budget, existing facilities account for about 1/3 of it, individual and mid-scale programs are another third, and the rest of the budget goes to ALMA, DKIST, and LSST.

AAS Science Policy & Advocacy

Joel Parriott, the AAS’s director of public policy, and Josh Shiode, the public policy fellow, organized a great session on science policy and the AAS’s advocacy efforts. They gave an informative presentation about how budgets are determined and about the current budget situation for basic and applied research in the astronomical sciences. I didn’t know that the US currently funds 37% of the world’s R&D, but China is expected to overtake the US in the early 2020s.

Shiode also spoke about the importance of cross-cultural communication between scientists and policy-makers. As a scientist and as a constituent, there are many ways that you can influence your Congress members, and nothing beats interacting with them in person. If you’re an astronomer, I strongly encourage you to participate in the Congressional Visits Day. I participated in it last year (see my blog post about it), and I really enjoyed it. You can find more information here, and note the deadline on 3 February.

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There are other ways to get involves as well. You can also call or write to your Representative or Senators as well as write letters to the editor or op-eds for your local newspaper. Note that some Congress members will be receptive to different messages or to different ways of framing scientists’ and educators’ concerns. One concern scientists have these days is that some members of Congress are interfering with the peer-review process in the NSF and NIH.

Telescopes

The AAS meeting also included a session on ALMA, a Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) open house, and a JWST town hall, as well as one for Hubble, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this spring. (I wasn’t able to attend all of these sessions, unfortunately.)

Al Wootten (National Radio Astronomy Observatory) gave a nice talk about science that is being done with ALMA so far. It’s an array of 66 12-meter and 7-meter radio telescopes, and after three decades of planning/construction, ALMA is now approaching full science operations. The US is part of a large international collaboration consisting of a partnership between North America, Europe, and East Asia. Wootten presented interesting results about observations of gas in Milky Way-like galaxies in the distant universe and of gas kinematics in protostars and protoplanetary disks. ALMA had a conference in Tokyo in December, and the proceedings will be published in a few months.

The TMT and JWST are upcoming telescopes that much of the astronomical community and the science-loving public are looking forward to. The TMT is one of the giant telescopes I’ve written about before, and it will have “first light” in 2022. JWST is scheduled to launch in 2018.

[This is my second post in a series about the American Astronomical Society meeting.]

Update: US Federal Science Budget for 2015

Last week, three months into the fiscal year, the US Congress avoided a government shutdown and finally passed a budget for 2015. Better late than never. As I wrote about during the time of the midterm election, the budget situation is particularly important for science research and development and for education and public outreach. The $1.1 trillion and 1,600 page omnibus bill includes many important non-science issues of course, such as provisions reducing financial regulations and others allowing larger campaign contributions to political parties, and the bill does not address funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which will be decided in February, but my focus here, as usual, is on the implications for science.

Many agencies will receive small budget increases for science and technology relative to FY 2014 and to the President’s initial budget request (but excluding his Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative). According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), federal research and development (R&D) would rise to $137.6 billion, which is a 1.7% increase from last year and consistent with inflation. This was not guaranteed, however, and scientists were braced for the worst. Under the current circumstances, the science budgets will fare rather well.

Importantly, note that the budget bill includes discretionary spending subject to the caps established by the Budget Control Act (“sequestration”) and modified last year. In addition, the cost of mandatory spending, including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, continues to increase; without more revenue, these will take a larger share in coming years. The following figure shows federal R&D relative to GDP. It’s courtesy of AAAS, and if you want more details about budget issues, I recommend reading Matt Hourihan‘s writings there, which includes a breakdown by agency. Details can also be found at the American Institute of Physics science policy news.

15p Omnibus GDP graph

NASA

For specific agencies, let’s start with NASA. In the omnibus bill, NASA received a budget of $18.01B, a significant increase over the President’s request and slightly larger than the inflation rate. For NASA’s Astrophysics Division, most of the budget increase comes from rejecting the President’s proposal to cancel the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a telescope mounted on a Boeing 747 aircraft that is funded at $70M. They will not have enough funding to implement all of the desired upgrades to the telescope though. The budget also includes $50M for the Wide-field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which is expected to launch in the early 2020s. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, is funded as expected (under its $8B total cost cap) and is on schedule for a 2018 launch. The Planetary and Heliophysics Divisions also saw budget increases over last year, including $100M for a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa (which might harbor life) and at least $100M for the high-priority Mars 2020 rover mission. Nonetheless, NASA may not be able to advance its smaller Discovery-class space probes and New Frontiers missions as quickly as hoped.

For detailed coverage of NASA’s budget, check out Josh Shiode of the American Astronomical Society and Marcia Smith at SpacePolicyOnline.

National Science Foundation

The budget includes an increase of 2.4% ($172M) to the NSF’s budget, and according to Shiode, this is partly thanks to efforts by the retiring chairman of the House Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies (CJS) Appropriations Subcommittee, Representative Frank Wolf. There will be a 2.2% increase over current funding to research and related activities across the six directorates, while there will be flat funding for research equipment and facilities construction, including expected funding for the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) and Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). I’m particularly looking forward to the LSST, which will be located in northern Chile and is planned to have “first light” in 2019. It will observe millions of galaxies and will be a successor to the very successful Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS).

Department of Energy

The DOE’s Office of Science received approximately flat funding at $5.1B in the budget bill. The Cosmic Frontier program, which includes dark matter and dark energy research, will see a $6.4M (6.5%) increase in its budget, however. The bill reverses potential cuts to nuclear fusion research, and it importantly threatens “to withhold the US contribution to ITER, the multibillion-euro international fusion consortium [based in southern France], if the beleaguered project, which is 11 years behind schedule, does not implement management changes,” according to an article in Nature.

Education

The budget bill has multiple provisions affecting education. It includes legislation for a program that would allow students without a high school diploma to get federal student aid as long as they are enrolled in college-level career pathway programs. It also unfortunately includes a $303M cut in discretionary funding from the Pell Grant program this year, according to Inside Higher Ed. The budget will increase funding to $530M supporting institutions that serve percentages of minority and low-income students through Title III funding.

NASA will receive $42M for education and public outreach, but the agency may have to shuffle its education budget, which has traditionally funded education activities in conjunction with every scientific mission. The NSF will receive $866M for education and human resources, including funding for its Graduate Research Fellowships.

Environmental Protection Agency

I don’t have good news about the EPA, which will now be funded at $8.1B this year, its smallest budget since 1989 according to Scientific American. The bill also includes some environment-related riders in the EPA and other agencies such as the following: President Obama will not be allowed to fulfill his pledge to contribute $3B to the United Nations Green Climate Fund; the Export–Import Bank will lift its ban on loaning funds to companies to build coal-fired power plants overseas; and the Transportation Department will not be able to fund most of its current light-rail projects.

Other Agencies

Finally, there are a few other agencies with science-related budgets. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) will receive essentially flat funding (0.3% increase). It will receive larger increases for cancer research, Alzheimer’s research, and the BRAIN Initiative on neuroscience. The bill also includes a multibillion dollar Ebola response that goes primarily to the NIH. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) will get flat funding, including full funding for its GOES-R and JPSS satellites for meteorological and polar research. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) received flat funding as well, and the US Geological Survey received a small increase.

This will be my last post until next year, so happy solstice (or Shabeh Yalda, as the Persians say) and happy holidays!

Rise of the Giant Telescopes

The biggest telescope ever constructed, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), officially broke ground on Mauna Kea in Hawai’i on Tuesday. Building on technology used for the Keck telescopes, the TMT’s primary mirror will be segmented combining 492 hexagonal reflectors that will be honeycombed together, and it will have an effective diameter of 30 meters, as you’ve probably guessed. (Astrophysicists come up with very descriptive names for their telescopes and simulations.) 30 meters is really really big—about a third the length of an American football field and nearly the size of a baseball diamond’s infield. When it’s built it will look something like this:

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(If you’re interested, here’s a shameless plug: we discussed the TMT’s groundbreaking on the Weekly Space Hangout with Universe Today yesterday, and you can see the video on YouTube.)

The groundbreaking and blessing ceremony, which included George Takei hosting a live webcast, didn’t go quite as planned. It was disrupted by a peaceful protest of several dozen people who oppose the telescope’s construction. The protesters chanted and debated with attendees and held signs with “Aloha ‘Aina” (which means ‘love of the land’) and using TMT to spell out “Too Many Telescopes.” There has been a history of tension over what native Hawaiians say is sacred ground in need of protection and is also one of the best places on Earth to place telescopes. This is a longstanding issue, and the tension between them back in 2001 was reported in this LA Times article. According to Garth Illingworth, co-chair of the Science Advisory Committee, “It was an uncomfortable situation for those directly involved, but the way in which the interactions with the protesters was handled, with considerable effort to show respect and to deal with the situation with dignity, reflected credit on all concerned.” In any case, construction will continue as planned.

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The TMT’s science case includes observing distant galaxies and the large-scale structure of the early universe, and will enable new research on supermassive black holes, and star and planet formation. The TMT is led by researchers at Caltech and University of California (where I work), and Canada, Japan, China, India. Its optical to near-infrared images will be deeper and sharper than anything else available, with spatial resolution twelve times that of the Hubble Space Telescope and eight times the light-gathering area of any other optical telescope. If it’s completed on schedule, it will have “first light” in 2022 and could be the first of the next generation of huge ground-based telescopes. The others are the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT, led by the European Southern Observatory) and the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT, led by the Carnegie Observatories and other institutions), which will be located in northern Chile.

Every ten years, astronomers and astrophysicists prioritize small-, medium-, and large-scale ground-based and space-based missions, with the aim of advising the federal government’s investment, such as funding through the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA. The most recent decadal survey, conducted by the National Academy of Sciences is available online (“New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics“). For the large-scale ground-based telescopes, the NSF will be providing funding for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (which I’ve written about here before) and the TMT. There had been debates about funding either the TMT or the GMT, but not both, though a couple years ago GMT scientists opted out of federal funding (see this Science article). NASA is focusing on space-based missions such as the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and Wide-Field InfraRed Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which will be launched later this decade.