Jan 21, 2020 - Science

Astronomy's existential crisis

An illustration of an astronomer looking through a telescope.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios; Photo: NASA/Getty Handout

Astronomers are grappling with setting scientific priorities, charges of sexism and racial discrimination, and thorny ethical questions about how they interact with communities they work in.

What's happening: Astronomers are currently debating where and how much money should be directed to large-scale missions versus smaller ones.

  • They're also experiencing a reckoning about who gets to participate in astronomy, with a new study revealing, in part, that African American undergraduate students are often discouraged from continuing their degrees in physics by faculty and peers.
  • And protests against the building of a large telescope on native land on Hawaii's Mauna Kea have brought the ethics of astronomy's effect on Earth into stark relief.

Details: The development of the James Webb Space Telescope — the Hubble telescope's successor — has been a drain on NASA's budget for years, as the cost of the program ballooned to nearly $10 billion.

  • Some astronomers are suggesting it makes sense to prioritize smaller missions that are more focused on answering one or two scientific questions instead of on large telescopes in the future.
  • Yes, but: Foregoing or putting off flagship missions will change the ambition of American astronomy and astrophysics, potentially shrinking the field's scope and influence.

At the same time, a report released by the American Institute of Physics details the systemic barriers African American students face when getting their bachelor's degrees in astronomy and physics.

  • The study calls on universities and other institutions to work toward doubling the number of bachelor's degrees awarded to African Americans in astronomy and physics by 2030.
  • Astronomers have also been taking a hard look at harassment and assault in the field in the wake of a series of high-profile sexual harassment cases.

Issues around inclusion in astronomy are also reflected in the controversy surrounding the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii, forcing space scientists to re-examine their relationships with the communities they work in.

  • "Astronomers see the peaks of mountaintops as the most ideal sites on which to place instruments, but the vast majority of these mountaintops are sacred to Indigenous peoples," researcher Sara Kahanamoku told Axios via email.
  • Scientists including Kahanamoku are now calling on astronomers and the federal government to take indigenous views into account when planning these large telescope projects.
"We're [astronomers] all kind of going through this — for us — difficult time where it's like, 'Oh, are we the baddies?'"
— astronomer Jessie Christiansen told Axios

The big picture: All of these forces are colliding in a field that the U.S. has led for decades. The answers to these existential questions will fundamentally change American astronomy and astrophysics.

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