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Europe Unveils 20-Year Plan for Brilliant Future in Astronomy
25 november 2008
Astronomy is enjoying a golden age of fundamental, exciting discoveries. Europe is at the forefront, thanks to 50 years of progress in cooperation. To remain ahead over the next two to three decades, Europe must prioritise and coordinate the investment of its financial and human resources even more closely. The ASTRONET network, backed by the entire European scientific community, supported by the European Commission, and coordinated by the CNRS, today presents its Roadmap for a brilliant future for European astronomy. ESO's European Extremely Large Telescope is ranked as one of two top-priority large ground-based projects.
Europe is a leader in astronomy today, with the world's most successful optical observatory, ESO's Very Large Telescope, and cutting-edge facilities in radio astronomy and in space. In an unprecedented effort demonstrating the potential of European scientific cooperation, all of European astronomy is now joining forces to define the scientific challenges for the future and construct a common plan to address them in a cost-effective manner.
In 2007, a top-level Science Vision was prepared to assess the most burning scientific questions over the next quarter century, ranging from dark energy to life on other planets. European astronomy now presents its Infrastructure Roadmap, a comprehensive 20-year plan to coordinate national and community investments to meet these challenges in a cost-effective manner. The Roadmap not only prioritises the necessary new frontline research facilities from radio telescopes to planetary probes, in space and on the ground, but also considers such key issues as existing facilities, human resources, ICT infrastructure, education and outreach, and cost — of operations as well as construction.
This bold new initiative — ASTRONET — was created by the major European funding agencies with support from the European Commission and is coordinated by the National Institute for Earth Sciences and Astronomy (INSU) of the CNRS. To build consensus on priorities in a very diverse community, the Science Vision and Roadmap were developed in an open process involving intensive interaction with the community through large open meetings and feedback via e-mail and the web. The result is a plan now backed by astronomers in 28 Member and Associated States of the EU, with over 500 million inhabitants.
Over 60 selected experts from across Europe contributed to the construction of the ASTRONET Roadmap, ensuring that European astronomy has the tools to compete successfully in answering the challenges of the Science Vision. They identified and prioritised a set of new facilities to observe the Universe from radio waves to gamma rays, to open up new ways of probing the cosmos, such as gravitational waves, and to advance in the exploration of our Solar System. In the process, they considered all the elements needed by a successful scientific enterprise, from global-scale cooperation on the largest mega-project to the need for training and recruiting skilled young scientists and engineers.
One of two top-priority large ground-based projects is ESO's European Extremely Large Telescope. Its 42-metre diameter mirror will make the E-ELT the largest optical/near-infrared telescope in the world — "the biggest eye on the sky". The science to be done with the E-ELT is extremely exciting and includes studies of exoplanets and discs, galaxy formation and dark energy. ESO Director General Tim de Zeeuw says: "The top ranking of the E-ELT in the Roadmap is a strong endorsement from the European astronomical community. This flagship project will indisputably raise the European scientific, technological and industrial profile".
Among other recommendations, the Roadmap considers how to maximise the future scientific impact of existing facilities in a cost-effective manner. It also identifies a need for better access to state-of-the art computing and laboratory facilities, and for a stronger involvement of European high-tech industry in the development of future facilities. Moreover, success depends critically upon an adequate supply of qualified scientists, and of engineers in fields ranging from IT to optics. Finally, the Roadmap proposes a series of measures to enhance the public understanding of astronomy as a means to boost recruitment in science and technology in schools and universities across Europe.
Europe currently spends approximately €2 billion a year on astronomy in the broadest sense. Implementing the ASTRONET Roadmap will require a funding increase of around 20% — less than €1 per year per European citizen. Global cooperation will be needed — and is being planned — for several of the largest projects.
ASTRONET first developed a Science Vision for European Astronomy (published October 2007), which reviewed and prioritised the main scientific questions that European astronomy should address over the next 10–20 years. Based on this effort, the ASTRONET Roadmap was developed primarily on scientific grounds by a Working Group appointed by the ASTRONET Board. Existing and proposed infrastructure projects — over 100 in all — were reviewed by three specialist panels of European scientists. Two other panels considered the needs for theory, computing and data archiving, and human resources, including education, recruitment, public outreach and industrial involvement.
The Roadmap addresses projects primarily requiring new funds of €10 million or more from European sources and on which spending decisions are required after 2008. Each project was examined for its potential scientific impact, originality, level of European input, size of the astronomical community that would benefit, and its relevance to advancing European high technology industry. Feedback from the community on an advanced complete draft of the report was invited through both a web-based forum and a large symposium held in Liverpool in June 2008.
Some top-priority projects from the full list are:
Among large-scale projects on the ground:
- the European Extremely Large Telescope, by far the largest optical telescope ever to be built, with a 42 m segmented mirror to study the sky in visible and infrared light;
- the Square Kilometre Array, a vast radio telescope occupying large parts of a continent. The SKA is being planned by a worldwide consortium.
Scientifically compelling instruments in a lower cost range include:
- a 4 m European Solar Telescope, to be based in the Canary Islands;
- an array of specialised optical telescopes to detect gamma-ray emission from black holes and other high energy events across the Universe;
- an underwater telescope to detect neutrinos — sub-atomic particles that can pass through the entire Earth and bring information on some of the most violent phenomena in the Universe.
Among the largest space missions proposed for the coming decade, the top priorities for ASTRONET include:
- a mission to study gravitational waves from the Big Bang and black holes in the Universe;
- an X-ray mission to study galaxies, galaxy clusters, and stars in unprecedented detail;
- two proposed missions to study the planets Jupiter and Saturn and their satellites.
Equally challenging, but less costly top-priority space projects include:
- a mission designed to unlock the secrets of dark energy and dark matter;
- a mission to understand the workings of our own star, the Sun, in greater detail than ever before.
- Roadmap Executive Summary
- Roadmap Full Report
- More about ASTRONET
- The European Extremely Large Telescope
- E-ELT images
- E-ELT videos
- The Square Kilometre Array radio telescope animations
- ExoMars animation
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