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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.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Tina Reed, author of Vitals
14 mins ago - Health

The end of the Omicron wave is in sight

Expand chart
Data: Our World in Data; Chart: Baidi Wang/Axios

The Omicron wave is likely beginning to recede in the U.S., experts say.

Why it matters: Omicron is still wreaking havoc in parts of the country, but infectious disease experts are optimistic that relief is around the corner.

NASA estimates Tonga volcano exploded with force of 5-6 megatons

A satellite image of Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano on Dec. 24, before the eruption. Photo: Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies

NASA scientists estimate the power of Tonga's volcanic eruption over the weekend to have been 5-6 Megatons of TNT equivalent.

Threat level: Saturday's eruption of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Haʻapai volcano and subsequent tsunami killed at least three people. Scientists warn an "ash-seawater cocktail" poses a potentially toxic health threat, and drinking water could be contaminated.

Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

New York AG alleges "significant evidence" of Trump Organization fraud

Combination images of former President Trump and New York State Attorney General Letitia James. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images; Scott Heins/Getty Images

New York's attorney general filed a motion Tuesday seeking to compel former President Trump and his two elder children to appear for sworn testimony in her office's civil investigation into the Trump Organization's financial dealings.

Why it matters: Attorney General Letitia James revealed new details in the court filing and a statement on her office's investigation into the Trump Organization's business practices, including a preliminary finding alleging the company used "fraudulent and misleading asset valuations to obtain economic benefits."