About this ArticleJ. Tumlinson (tumlinson[at]stsci.edu)
The Future of Astrophysics
The decadal survey for the 2020s was released to great fanfare in November 2021. Pathways to Discovery in Astronomy and Astrophysics for the 2020s laid out an ambitious program of missions, facilities, and community initiatives to address the key scientific challenges for the next decade: Worlds and Suns in Context, New Messengers and New Physics, and Cosmic Ecosystems.
The report recommends an exciting mixture of programs for NASA's space astrophysics enterprise, led by a new fleet of Great Observatories. Recall that NASA sponsored four flagship mission concept studies as input to Astro2020: the LUVOIR and HabEx UVOIR telescopes, the Lynx X‑ray observatory, and the Origins Space Telescope. NASA's Astrophysics Division Director, Paul Hertz, exhorted the decadal to Seize the Future (Carpe Posterum), and they responded with a comprehensive vision for future flagships that spans the search for life and its origins to black holes at the dawn of time.
The centerpiece of the recommendations is the "Great Observatories Maturation Program" (GOMAP), a new approach to developing flagships that reconfigures their early development based on lessons learned from JWST. Instead of having the top-ranked mission proceed directly to development (or, in NASA-speak, pre-Phase A), the GOMAP will bring all of the missions into the early stages of technology development and trade studies of the architecture and design to reduce risks and better contain costs. This maturation program aims to overcome some of the drivers of cost growth experienced by JWST and other large-scale one-off projects in and outside NASA, which face risks that some technologies are not ready and costs are difficult to estimate early on for mega-projects with few or no antecedents. Other key elements of the GOMAP are significant early technology effort, to buy down those risks, and decadal-level gate reviews to inform the most significant cost-benefit trades before a mission proceeds to full development. The decadal recommends that the "IROUV" mission, which combines the LUVOIR and HabEx concepts, be the first mission to emerge from the GOMAP and proceed to development in the latter half of this decade, followed by the X‑ray and/or FIR missions pending their readiness at that stage.
The scientific aims of the New Great Observatories (NGO) could hardly be more ambitious, and the new approach to development offers the chance of a multiwavelength fleet operating together in the 2040s, much like astronomers enjoyed the combination of Hubble, Spitzer, and Chandra for well over a decade. This spring (2022), NASA will begin its implementation of the GOMAP with a series of community meetings, ultimately leading to a phase of precursor science activity that will inform the first stages the GOMAP. But, this program will require more than just the decadal or NASA to succeed—a whole community will need to coalesce around the New Great Observatories and persist through all the likely difficulties to make them a reality. To that end, a group of community leaders has created the New Great Observatories coalition, where interested astronomers can learn more about the science and technology of these missions and find out how to get involved. We also invite all interested astronomers to an open splinter meeting at the 240th AAS, with details to be announced at the NGO website. Join us and Carpe Posterum!