Giant Space Observatories Will Unlock the Secrets of the Cosmos –“But Global Competition Intensifies”


Astronomy has never been so exciting. Earth-like planets have been found orbiting other stars. Cosmologists are quantifying mysterious forces of ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’. Completely new windows have been opened onto the cosmos thanks to facilities such as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile and the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), in the states of Washington and Louisiana.

But large facilities that can explore these frontiers, continue Matt Mountain and Adam Cohen in Nature, cost billions of dollars and take decades to design, build and operate. ALMA was proposed in 1990 and became operational in 2013. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was approved in 2000 and will be launched in 2021. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, recommended in 2010 and under construction in Chile, will begin to map the sky in 2023. The fruits of the 2020 Decadal Survey won’t see light until the 2030s.


The US community faces a daunting task. Each generation of facilities is getting more expensive and harder to build. Operational costs are mounting. Meanwhile, the research budgets of the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA have remained more or less flat since the 1990s (see ‘Astronomical costs’). Hard decisions have been made to close old but still-productive telescopes, which has proved insufficient to pay for new ones. And these pressures will only get worse as more big projects come online.

Every ten years, US astronomers set research priorities for the following decade. The latest cycle to pick projects for the 2020s has just started. In July, the US National Academy of Sciences launched the seventh Astronomical Decadal Survey (Astro2020) with a call for proposals for future telescopes and space missions. Over the coming year, these will be collected, assessed and discussed in open meetings. A ranked list of priority projects will be released in 2021. Funding permitting, those at the top will be built over the next decades.

The two-year process is widely viewed as a gold standard for building consensus — many other fields have adopted it, from Earth sciences to solid-state physics1. It carries weight with policymakers and funders. But as astronomy firmly enters the ‘big science’ era, we think that the decades-old system for funding federal astronomy needs debating and updating.

International competition is growing. The European Space Agency has picked its key projects as far ahead as 2044, including an advanced X-ray space observatory. The European Southern Observatory has fully funded its Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) in Chile. From the mid-2020s, its 39-meter-diameter mirror will collect more than ten times as much light as the largest optical telescopes today. China opened the world’s biggest radio telescope in Guizhou province in 2016, and plans to launch a competitor to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Without a concerted effort, a US scientist in the 2030s will be left without similarly capable facilities. We will face an unacceptable dilemma: support existing grants and cede US leadership, or abandon funding for key areas of research to support a few world-leading facilities.

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