Designing the Future of Astronomy
Staff at the institute are active in all aspects of the Astro2020 Decadal Review, which advises our national science agencies on the priorities for new astronomy initiatives and observatories.
The idea of a space-based telescope was first conceived in 1946 by Lyman Spitzer, but his paper appeared in an appendix of a document prepared for a defense-related organization. This idea would lead, decades later, to the Hubble Space Telescope. The realization of today’s beloved Hubble began in 1969, when the concept to build a “large space telescope” was formally proposed by the scientific community in partnership with the aerospace industry.
Since the 1960s, the process to propose new astronomical facilities—both in space and on the ground—is well known: Once a decade, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine seeks input from the U.S. astronomical community, requesting that scientists identify priorities in astronomy and astrophysics, and develop a comprehensive strategy for the upcoming decade.
Their recommendations include everything from large-scale space- and ground-based observatories to assessments of the state of the profession. Administrators at NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Energy use these recommendations to decide which new facilities, missions, and research support programs to implement over the next 10 to 20 years.
The Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics (Astro2020) is now underway—and scientific and technical staff at STScI are vigorously engaged. To acquire the critically needed input from our research community to ensure transformative science is pursued, the National Academies, with recommendations from the Astro2020 co-chairs Rob Kennicutt and Fiona Harrison, established 12 panels and a top-level steering committee.
Six of the panels are charged with identifying the key scientific priorities for 2022 to 2032 and six panels are charged with identifying the projects, facilities, and programs that can best address that science. Four STScI scientists are serving on the Astro2020 panels and one STScI scientist is serving on the main Steering Committee as its executive officer, a key leadership role for the Astro2020 survey.
The most important staff involvement, however, is providing the vital scientific input to the Astro2020 panels in the form of well-crafted white papers. Just over 570 science white papers were submitted during the open call for community feedback in the spring of 2019. STScI staff were authors on 143 of the submitted white papers, contributing to about 25 percent of the science input. This is an impressive demonstration of commitment to the Astro2020 process, given that our science staff accounts for less than 3 percent of all active U.S. astronomers.
In addition to serving on Astro2020 science panels, staff across the institute also published and co-published a variety of papers in preparation for the decadal review. Their articles address a range of topics, including the state of the profession, data science, future technologies, and a variety of cutting-edge science topics.
In addition to the science white papers, the U.S. community submitted nearly 300 white papers on concepts for future facilities, new kinds of research programs, and ways in which we can improve the state of the profession. Here, too, STScI staff members are strongly represented, authoring or co-signing 54 of the 294 activities, programs, and state-of-the-profession consideration white papers.
As part of the preparation for Astro2020, NASA funded four three-year studies of large strategic mission concepts that will be considered as potential flagship space-based observatories ready for launch in the 2030s. Reports describing the science cases and detailed design concepts for these possible future telescopes were submitted to the Astro2020 review panels in summer 2019.
These proposals are exciting in part for the potential outcomes—NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope was selected at Astro2000 and NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) at Astro2010, both of which are run in partnership with STScI. No matter which decisions are announced in early 2021, the institute will continue to play important roles on missions in the coming decades by participating in developing key mission technologies, helping to run their science operations, and archiving and disseminating the data.
2020 Flagship Mission Proposals
Four flagship missions, proposed to be ready for launch in the 2030s, were formally submitted to Astro2020—and all four studies were supported by staff at the institute. Learn about each below and on the official site: GreatObservatories.org