Why plan for 10 years out when you can plan for 30? One NASA advisory group is going for the long haul: between now and December it intends to draw up “a compelling, 30-year vision” for NASA’s astrophysics division.
This might seem like overkill, given that astronomers already perform “decadal surveys” every 10 years to prioritize future missions. In fact, the latest decadal survey came out just three years ago, with a midterm review due to start two years from now. The new ‘roadmap’ isn’t meant to replace the decadal survey process, says NASA’s Paul Hertz, head of the astrophysics division. “What the roadmap does is it looks out 30 years and provides a vision of what astrophysics might do,” he told a virtual town-hall meeting on 6 May.
In other words, more of a wish list than a prioritizing document. Chryssa Kouveliotou, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, is heading up the road map under the auspices of a NASA advisory council subcommittee. In late February, her team put out a call for astronomers to submit one-page abstracts of what they considered the biggest science and technology goals and challenges for NASA astrophysics in the next three decades. Oh, and the deadline was just one month later.
The resulting abstracts include everything from ultraviolet spectroscopy of galactic gas flows to swarms of nanosatellite telescopes. Kouveliotou and her team intend to weed through them and come up with major themes for the roadmap by the end of May. An interim report is due in August, and a final report by December.
That may sound a little fast for developing a 30-year vision. But the bigger question may not be time but money. The roadmap’s charter calls for listing “notional” missions to explore big astrophysics questions. “We obviously won’t go all of those places because funding will be limited,” Hertz told the town hall, which was held via web owing to travel-budget constraints. “I want [the roadmap team] to lay out all the possibilities that we will then choose amongst.”
Indeed, some of the suggestions — such as developing interferometry in space — are painfully familiar as budget constraints have limited them in the past.