NASA Astrophysics Roadmap: The Next 30 Years

What are Origami Nanosat Telescopes? How about Kinetic Inductance Detectors?
More importantly, what should we do with them?

NASA's Astrophysics is doing a Roadmap exercise, with the stated intent to look at science goals, technology and capabilities up to 30 years out!

White papers were solicited a few weeks ago, and about 100 were received and are archived online, about 3/4 on science and 1/4 on technology.

There was originally supposed to be a workshop for presentation of selected white papers, but in the world of sequestration that was not feasible, so instead there was a two day online townhall meeting, run over Adobe Connect

Much of my time this week was spent keeping half an ear on the roadmap presentations, for a while in parallel with trying to follow the concurrent first part of the Astrobiology Roadmap web chat!

There were typically just under a 100 participants online at any given time, many of which were the Roadmap Team Memberswho were presumably obliged to be there all the time. So given that people dipped in and out of the meeting, maybe 2-300 people total participated, most passively. Myself included.

Several things struck me about the presentations: one is that the technology talks were incredibly interesting, and suggested not only that we are about to get lets of fun new toys, but that for many areas of astrophysics we are approaching perfect detectors - a phrase I first heard quoted about modern radio receivers.

Our detector technology is asymptoting to reaching quantum limits in efficiency across all wavebands and modes of detection.
Further, as with the Planck mission, for some observations we are approaching the point where we will observe all there is to detect - improved equipment will not give more or better signal.

What struck me about the science presentations, is that they tended to be narrow, focused on narrow science goals in small subfields, and they were all about old stuff - stuff we've been thinking about or trying to do for at least a decade, for the most part.

I also did not see the word "exoplanet" in any of the presentation titles. Of the white papers selected for online presentation, that is.
Maybe we're about to get a new division in NASA's Science Mission Directorate?

But that is details, the real question is what DO we want to be doing 30 years from now, and in the time leading up to then?

Well, everything!

Seriously, we ought to be monitoring the whole sky at all wavelengths, synoptically, as a matter of routine, thirty years from now.
We know we can have the technological capabilities, we know how it could be done, and the cost is finite.
The cost is actually trivially small on the scale of the world economies over that same time.

I don't think we are really arguing over that, the discussion is really about priorities, what to start first, what order to do things in, and how quickly to proceed.
This is important mostly because with current funding constraints we can't move ahead on all fronts, so some fields will be left for later. Which means firing a lot of the current researchers and giving up existing capabilities, on our way to the bright and glorious future.

Beyond that, one can argue about when enough is enough - like will the cosmic microwave background measurements be done after the next round? Synoptic surveys are unlikely to be productive for the CMB on decadal time scales...
Then one can argue about details, like cadence for the synoptics, and how deep to go on individual targets. It is likely that high resolution spectroscopy will be capability limited even three decades from now, and probably also really deep imaging. eg we will be limited in target selection for spatially resolved imaging of exoplanets for the foreseeable future, even if we go to arbitrarily large optically perfect mirrors.
As long as there are small numbers of facilities, and steering is limited, targets will outnumber facilities.

I think the distinction here is important - we really ought to be observing everything, true astronomical panopticons.
What we are really talking about is prioritizing the order in which we do things with finite resources, not what we ought to try to do at all.

What is sad is how small the numbers we argue about are. The NSF cuts are based on budget crunches in the tens of millions of dollars per year, while the NASA shortfalls for science to keep going at the pace we're trying to maintain are order a billion dollar per year.

With a little bit more money really astonishing science could be done in the next few decades, but we are reduced to political infighting over a shrinking pot, each subfield hoping to survive long enough to still be there when things get better.


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All these shiny new toys are being proposed, but the President's budget requests for Astrophysics at NASA are basically on a path toward liquidation:

Ap Exp
FY13 Request for FY14 703.0 134.3
FY14 Request for FY14 642.3 100.9

That's a 10% reduction in astrophysics, which means that the decadal survey's (W)FIRST priority will never get going; and a 30% decrease for Explorers, which was the other priority.

This has led to a stay on completing the evaluation of the Explorer MoO proposals submitted in Dec 2012. Probably this means that the approximately 20 million dollars of effort put into these proposals by the community will have been wasted.

By Ned Wright (not verified) on 09 May 2013 #permalink