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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

Updated 4 hours ago - Sports

Olympics dashboard

Silver medalist Lilly King of Team USA (left) embraces gold medalist Tatjana Schoenmaker of Team South Africa on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Women's 200m breaststroke final on July 30. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images

🥇 : U.S. gymnast Suni Lee wins gold in the women's individual all-around

🚣‍♀️: Team USA women's eight rowing fails to reach the podium

🤸🏾‍♀️: Simone Biles reacts to "love and support" after withdrawing from all-around gymnastics and team finals, citing her mental health

🏊: Olympic swimmer Ryan Murphy wins Silver in 200m

📷: In photos: Tokyo Olympics day 6 highlights

🗓: The Olympic events to watch today

🏃‍: Female Olympians push back against double standard in uniforms

Go deeper: Full Axios coverage

Former Michigan Sen. Carl Levin dies at 87

Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) in 2014. He died Thursday. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) died Thursday, his family and the Levin Center at Wayne Law — which bore his name — confirmed. He was 87.

Why it matters: The Detroit native served for 36 years in the U.S. Senate, serving twice as chairman of the Armed Services Committee and is credited with helping overturn the military's “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” rule.

Updated 5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Military members will be included in Biden's new COVID guidance

Joe Biden. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Members of the military will be required to get vaccinations or face regular testing, social distancing, mask mandates and restrictions on travel for work, the the Pentagon said on Thursday evening.

Why it matters: The policy was announced for federal workers and onsite contractors earlier on Thursday, part of several new Biden initiatives to get more Americans vaccinated and slow the spread of the Delta variant.