Future Science: The Frontiers of 21st Century Astronomy

Space has a way of inspiring the imagination more than almost any other scientific field. When we talk about making huge investments of money and brainpower to solve some looming problem--say, the need for renewable energy--we talk about making a new moon shot. And while some of the most exciting scientific discoveries are being made right now on the smallest scales imaginable, there is something about the grandness of both time and distance that makes space truly the final frontier.

Drawing out the comparisons between investigating the infinitesimal and the infinite, astronomy is the only field that gets science gear cool (and big) enough to hold their own against the reigning heavyweight: The Large Hadron Collider. There's no arguing with the awesomeness of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's line of parabolic dishes, or the forthcoming Thirty Meter Telescope's world-record mirror. So it's no surprise that the two research groups and the National Science Foundation are cosponsoring a conference with a future-forward name.

Future Science: The Frontiers of 21st Century Astronomy, will take place June 3rd in Washington DC. Registration is free for science communicators, and this is what you'll be getting into:

The National Science Foundation (NSF), in cooperation with the Thirty Meter Telescope Project (TMT) and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) invites journalists to attend Future Science: The Frontiers of 21st Century Astronomy. This conference will be moderated by Miles O'Brien, managing editor of Space Flight Now's "This Week in Space" and former chief technology and environment correspondent at CNN. Panelists will explore the current state of our understanding, the most recent results of ongoing research and the future trajectory in this field. Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) will be the lunch speaker. His talk is titled, "Searching for ET: the Agony and the Ecstasy."

The conference will centered on four "grand challenges" in the field of astronomy. These challenges start at the most fundamental aspects of science--literally, fundamental particles--and go up through the creation of planets and stars, and end with the mysterious force that seems to pervade the universe: dark energy.

First Stars and First Light: Epoch of Reionization

Elizabeth Barton, UC Irvine

In its infancy the universe was suffused with a dense, obscuring fog of primordial gas. As the first stars switched on, they began to reionize the cosmos, punching ever-larger holes in their murky surroundings. Eventually, the effect of these young, massive stars enabled light to shine freely through space. Peering ever deeper into these "dark ages" has been both a challenge and a quest for astronomers, with today's best telescopes giving tantalizing clues as to the nature of these early stars and the assembly of the very first galaxies.

From Dust and Gas to Planets and Stars
Lynne A. Hillenbrand, California Institute of Technology;
Jean L. Turner, UC Los Angeles
From a collapsing cloud of dust and gas four-and-a-half billion years ago, the Earth and rest of our solar system began to form. The exact processes that drive star and planet formation, however, are not well understood. Tracking the evolution of nascent stars and protoplanetary disks will give astronomers many of the missing pieces to this intriguing puzzle. Recent discoveries in infrared and radio astronomy are also helping to unravel this mystery.

The Universe as Laboratory: Fundamental Physics
Scott Ransom, NRAO
The universe is a great laboratory that challenges the frontiers of physics. The most advanced laboratories on Earth never will match the extreme conditions provided by black holes, pulsars, or supernova explosions. The next generation of telescopes will allow us to tap these exotic laboratories to make major advances in understanding particle physics, general relativity, and other fundamental areas of science.

Dark Energy
Rachael Bean, Cornell University
For decades, astronomers assumed that the expansion of the universe was slowing. Scientists studying distant galaxies and supernovae were surprised to discover, however, that the universe was actually expanding faster and faster. Astronomers have attributed this to an unknown force called "dark energy." By studying the most distant objects, astronomers hope to shine more light on this mysterious repulsive force, how it affects matter, and what part it will play in the future evolution of the universe.

Registration is free, but ends next Friday, so head over to the NSF site to sign up.

I'll be back with more as we get closer to the conference, but in the meantime, check out this slideshow to see why pushing the frontiers in astronomy is worth getting excited about.


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Since Cosmic Rays are much higher in energy --6 or so orders of magnitude- than the Hadron Collider, it begs the question to consider why we aren't investing more in satellite detection.

I suggest that more coverage should be given to high energy cosmic ray detection, especially those above 19GEv. Physics Today recently discussed the surprising result that these high energy particles might be Iron Nuclei. However, the discussion was obscured in minutiae and seemed to overlook possible models and sources in the sense that there was much too much to read through to see what a credible source hypothesis was.
The Argentine effort has been very fruitful but how about a serious satellite detection system.
What are these energetic events that can produce nuclei of such a high energy?
Since Cosmic Rays are much higher in energy --6 or so orders of magnitude- than the Hadron Collider, it begs the question to consider why we aren't investing more in satellite detection. I personally think that the search for planets that might be earthlike receives too much emphasis whereas cosmological questions that cosmic ray studies might answer will
be much more robust in leading to a richer field of knowledge.

By Art Altshiller (not verified) on 17 May 2010 #permalink