Today’s Solutions: November 30, 2021

The Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey is carried out every decade to discuss and prioritize upcoming projects of federal agencies and policymakers for the next 10 years. A panel of global experts is carefully curated by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Medicine to come together to do this, and this decade’s report is recommending a shift to the traditional way of carrying out space exploration.

Previous proposals

Earlier projects include the Nancy Grace Roman Space telescope, which surveys and catalogs planets, in addition to investigating dark energy. Another notable project is the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile, a wide field ground-based telescope. Once complete, it hopes to assist in answering questions surrounding gravity and record transient events such as asteroids and supernovas.

In the past, NASA focussed all its resources on one project at a time. Jonathan Fortney, a member of the survey committee said, “you would pick a priority, you’d build it, you’d launch it, and then you would think about what the next priority was.”

A new approach

As technology progresses, projects are growing in length, complexity, cost, and ambition. Therefore, the panel of experts at the survey know well that this same structure does not work anymore, and want to mix things up moving forward. The report states that multiple big projects should be pursued at the same time, developing missions in parallel. Hopefully, this will reduce wait time between launches and allow missions to stay on budget and schedule.

Looking into the future of space exploration

The survey concludes that NASA’s focus for the future should be inventing machines that fill in current gaps left in space exploration, including far-infrared and X-ray telescopes. With these technologies, researchers hope we will get closer to answers regarding habitable exoplanets, extraterrestrial life, black holes, neutron stars, and the growth and evolution of galaxies.

An abundance of international collaboration happens between NASA and other space agencies around the world, with facilities and data being shared between many. Therefore there is external pressure to follow these recommended guidelines from the conference. Fortney is hopeful that agencies in the USA will manage this, “The record has been quite good, in terms of the most prominent recommendations being born out,” he says. “I have really high confidence that these things really will happen.”

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