Nov 9, 2021 - Science

A whole new view of the universe

Photo illustration of an astronomer from 1822 looking through a modern day telescope.

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Astronomers are now at a point where they can test theories, settle debates and answer age-old questions about our universe that weren't possible even a decade ago.

Driving the news: An influential report published last week puts forward ambitious plans to develop technologies over the next 10 years that will fuel new discoveries about life in the universe.

  • The sweeping document known as the decadal survey calls for building a large space telescope designed to find an Earth twin circling another star and creating a program to get other powerful telescopes to space in the future.
  • It also proposes shoring up U.S. capabilities to detect ripples in space and time called gravitational waves, and building new ground-based telescopes to help gather data about stars, galaxies and the structure of our universe.
  • The document also draws the line from cultivating an equitable and diverse workforce to good scientific discovery. Simply having the tools to do good science isn't enough if the people using them aren't able to shine.

Where it stands: Scientists now have the ability to see out into the universe in wavelengths stretching from the ultraviolet to the infrared in incredible detail.

  • Sensitive tools are also able to detect the gravitational waves emitted by the extreme collisions of black holes and neutron stars, opening a new window into how we can probe the nature of the universe.
  • "The discoveries of the last decade have really shown us how rich and complex our universe is, but it also put before us the tools that we that we need to study that richness," astronomer Rachel Osten, who was part of the steering committee for the document, told Axios.
  • The tools used by astronomers today will continue to be developed, upping their sensitivity and ability to detect objects and phenomena about not just life in the universe but where humanity fits within a broader cosmological context.

The big picture: The report's recommendations form an expansive vision of what astronomy can be. The document effectively asks not just for a few tentpole missions but for a new fleet of great observatories that can answer a slew of questions about the universe.

  • "To maximize our species' chances at discovery, one needs to take the long horizon view," astrophysicist Grant Tremblay told Axios.
  • While the report recommends NASA build a telescope to find an Earth twin, it also reiterates that it will take more than just that one telescope to understand habitable worlds.
  • The report's authors urge NASA and other funding agencies to put resources behind building tools to piece together not just whether an Earth twin exists but how habitable planets are born around stars.

Yes, but: The priorities put forth by the document are sweeping and will take a concerted effort on the part of NASA and the entire space science community to enact.

  • Technology development is difficult and can create delays, despite the best-laid plans and intentions of those working on ambitious projects.
  • It also remains to be seen whether NASA will buy into the recommendations wholeheartedly to make these ambitious plans come to fruition.
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