Dark energy studies top astronomy and astrophysics priorities
High-energy physics interests are ranked highly in the decadal study of astronomy and astrophysics priorities released by a National Research Council committee today. The top-ranked projects in "New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics" include studies of dark energy and dark matter although a strong emphasis on extra-solar planet astronomy pushed some high-energy physics further down the list.
Topping the list for large-scale ground-based projects is LSST, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which would image over half the sky every three nights. Its 8.4-meter telescope in Chile will create a 3D map of the universe, locating dark matter and characterizing the properties of dark energy. You can read more about LSST in stories about the search for dark energy (a symmetry feature illustrated by Roz Chast); the largest digital camera ever created; and the work needed to store all the data the telescope will collect.
The large-scale space-based list is led by a newly named project WFIRST, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope. It will use three different techniques to explore dark energy from space with the big advantage that it can see deep into the infrared spectrum. That is important for observing the most distant supernovae, a key component in understanding dark energy. The design of WFIRST is based on one of the proposed designs for the Joint Dark Energy Mission between NASA and the US Department of Energy, but those proposals had been put on ice until this report came out. WFIRST adds some extra capabilities to the JDEM “Omega” proposal, including a search for extra-solar planets.
Second on the space-based list is a collection of projects in the NASA Explorer range. A previous Explorer project was the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, or WMAP, which has provided stunning data about the cosmic microwave background. The specific projects in this category are not determined yet but will come from proposal competitions recommended to occur annually. Although the high-energy physics component of these proposals is unclear, past missions have added significant value to the high-energy physics mission.
Back on the ground, participation in the Atmospheric Cerenkov Telescope Array, or ACTA, ranked lower. However, the committee says this area is important due to the recent demonstrated progress and that prospects are good for building a much more capable facility not too far into the future
Looking at DOE budget scenarios, the committee recommends that if the budget doubling path continues, enough funding would be available to participate strongly in LSST, WFIRST, and ACTA plus some additional smaller projects recommended by PASAG, the Particle Astrophysics Scientific Advisory Group. If the budget stays closer to flat over the next decade then DOE involvement will need to be more selective. As DOE is a smaller player than others in the large-scale projects, DOE should prioritize LSST over the others because it has a larger fractional participation.
Astronomers and astrophysicists will be chewing over the details in the 224-page document for some time but NASA, DOE, and NSF will all be getting together in the next few weeks to look at their existing plans in light of the report.