By the Pricking of My Thumb

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Friday, August 13th the Astronomy Decadal Survey Report is released…

Good thing we’re not superstitious, eh?

The Decadal Survey is a clever thing, that Astronomy invented.
Every 10 years, natch, a panel of astronomers, and sub-panels, and sub-sub-panels, and ad-hoc-sub-sub-sub-panels, get together under the leadership of a senior and unimpeachable scientist, and prioritize US national efforts for the field for the next decade.

Last year was a decadal year, and Roger Blandford (Stanford) chaired it.
The panel is run by the National Research Council and sponsored by both NSF and NASA.
Depending on their mood, NSF and NASA can rely heavily on the decadal recommendations; a low rank for a project can likely kill it, a high rank may be as good a nod as a wink to a blind bat.
Barring Congressional intercession, it is not unexpected for Agency program heads to use the decadal report as the primary prioritization and just work their way down the list as far as they can get.
I have not seen the report, it is released on friday, and the panel members and sub-panel chairs have not leaked.

The report will prioritize facilities, both ground based (ie NSF) and space missions (NASA).

NSF faces interesting problems – they’re running NOAO and Gemini, and a bunch of radio observatories: Arecibo, Green Bank and VLA, as well as Solar observatory.
They have ALMA coming up, and it is expensive and expensive to run.
Beyond that there is the much wished for Large Synoptic Survey Telescope and the already underway GMT and TMT the 20-30m class optical telescopes.
NSF can’t do it all under current budget projections.

NASA is worse off, they have JWST coming up, last decadals priority.
Beyond that they had a pipeline LISA JDEM, LISA, IXO – and a wish list of of medium and small missions, and future flagships: SIM, TPF-c, TPF-i, next generation microwave background mission etc.
They do not have the funding for any of this, and prospects look bad.

What are the politics?
Solar will be protected; radio is in trouble, I think, because ALMA counts as radio and something has to give – I don’t see Green Bank being shut, it just go going, so Arecibo and VLA are vulnerable. Arecibo has some political protection, but I don’t know how persistently solid it is.

Congress just added a rider to current appropriations directing NSF to support new large scale optical telescope on US soil: GMT is in Chile, TMT is in Hawaii.
Both are private projects, with foreign participation and NSF stepped down from them few years ago, no money and they wanted to see how it’d shake down.
Both projects have some substantial construction funding, but neither can actually operate the telescopes if built, and then there is instrumentation and upgrades… (actually I can’t see how Keck will continue to be operated by the TMT partners – may be an opportunity there).
Anyway, throwing support behind TMT would bump LSST, and that is a sweet project.
But, supporting LSST would leave the TMT people dangling.
Also NSF can’t run a 30m observatory and NOAO and Gemini without a lot of new money, and Gemini is kinda brand spanking new still… so close NOAO?
But that leaves the US without any medium class public observatories, only very large telescopes. That’d both constrain instrumentation and squeeze public and single PI projects – bread’n’butter science.

NASA: my guess is There Will Only Be One!
Unless Obama relents and forgives and puts NASA science on the “America Competes” ramp-up for science.

That is ONE of the large scale projects, only, for the next decade.
Maybe one or two medium/small projects to keep a community alive.
I’m biased: I think JDEM screwed up, first by bumping in line demanding a new priority review, and then not being ready to go; I have had some involvement in LISA for over a decade, though only platonic for now, due to total absence of funding – I really like LISA as a concept, and there is the pesky matter of the agreement with ESA to do LISA;
IXO is solid, has a huge constituency of good hard working x-ray observers, but is incremental.
Unfortunately I don’t see the TPFs as ready to go phase-A, though something like a New World Observer concept could fly early with some success and have strong secondary science.

So, I’m kinda pessimistic, in case you hadn’t got it yet.

The panel will webcast 11am eastern on friday.
Pretty much every US astronomy department and observatory and NASA lab wlll be plugged in. NRC is asking people to gather in seminar rooms and share, not hookup individual desktops.
Report comes online then as well.

So, I am Really Worried by this.
For two reasons, says the AAS:
1) “It is vital that we uniformly support the report and its
2) “In order for the astronomical community to be able to hear about the
recommendations in greater detail this fall, the AAS will organize a
set of live Town Halls across the country with local support provided
in the form of a venue and appropriate audiovisual resources. These
Town Halls would each entail perhaps a half-day meeting, in which a
presentation of the report by a Decadal Survey committee member would
be followed by a Q&A session fielded by an AAS officer or councilor.”

Say what?

Ok, solidarity is good, and past reports have had broad support: but this suggest that some people are going to get hit very hard, and need to suck it up.
Secondly, post-report town halls? What needs to be spelled out in detail we can’t read for ourselves…?

So, this may be a bold report, suggesting some drastic steps.
Or not.
But I am intrigued and slightly worried – something has to give, unless a miracle happens – and it’d be better if the community agreed on who to toss out of the balloon, as it were, but it could be a less than fun exercise.

What to do, what to do, what to do…

We’ll find out on friday.

see NRC Astro 2010


  1. #1 Matt K
    August 11, 2010

    NRC link at the end of the post is borked….

  2. #2 mihos
    August 11, 2010

    well jesus christ, i didnt realize that one actually had to *apply* for the ability to watch the feed. too late for me, now.

    somebody let me know if i end up getting outsourced, ok?

  3. #3 Steinn Sigurdsson
    August 11, 2010

    @Matt – thnks, fixed

    @hos – we’ll be sure to let y’know…
    you want a tweet?

  4. #4 Kári
    August 13, 2010

    Go JDEM!

  5. #5 Kári
    August 13, 2010

    Go WFIRST!

  6. #6 crf
    August 13, 2010

    as well as SKA (square kilometer array)

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