The future of US astronomy just dimmed by half | by Ethan Siegel | Starts With A Bang! | Mar, 2024


The 25-meter Giant Magellan Telescope is currently under construction, and will be the greatest new ground-based observatory on Earth. The spider arms, seen holding the secondary mirror in place, are specially designed so that their line-of-sight falls directly between the narrow gaps in the GMT mirrors, creating a view of the Universe without sharp corners to its mirrors or diffraction spikes around its stars. As one of the two US Extremely Large Telescopes proposed by astronomers and currently in development, it is an essential part of bringing about a new generation in cutting-edge ground-based astronomy facilities. (Credit: Giant Magellan Telescope/GMTO Corporation)

Ground-based facilities enable the greatest scientific production in all of astronomy. The NSF needs to be ambitious, and it’s now or never.

If you want to push the frontiers of science, you don’t just need brilliant minds with first-rate educations, you also need cutting-edge facilities to support them. When it comes to the science of astronomy and astrophysics, the next generation of necessary facilities — in the ground and in space, across all wavelengths of light, and even extending beyond light to particles and gravitational waves — were just recently agreed-upon by the National Academies of Sciences in a decadal report known as Astro2020. With a truly balanced portfolio between:

  • ground-based and space-based endeavors,
  • small, medium, large, and flagship missions,
  • various fields of astronomy, from within our Solar System to exoplanets to stars and galaxies to cosmology,
  • and a series of new and upgraded facilities, including two extremely large telescopes, the next-generation Very Large Array, and upgrades to the IceCube facility for detecting neutrinos at the south pole,
  • as well as investments in the next generation of scientists,

many have written at length about this ambitious but doable plan to secure a bright future for the United States in this profoundly important area of fundamental science.

These recommendations were adopted, across-the-board, by federal agencies such as NASA and the Department of Energy, and were expected to be (but have not been, to date) adopted by the National Science Foundation as well. However, with one penny-pinching and short-sighted resolution, the NSF has decided that instead of building two extremely large telescopes, the United States will only contribute towards one, and even that is only to the tune of a maximum of $1.6 billion, as recommended by the National Science Board. The truth is we need these facilities, as many have argued, and perhaps the best way to understand why is to debunk the most common myths associated with arguing why we don’t.

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