Aug. 18, 2010

National report makes for 'a good day' for CU astronomy

A comprehensive survey by a National Academy of Sciences-appointed committee of scientists gave a powerful boost to a number of Cornell-related astronomy and astrophysics projects with the release of its report Aug. 13.

The Astro2010 Decadal Survey, which began in 2008, provides direction for the astronomy and astrophysics federal research and funding agenda for the next 10 years.

Among the projects cited for their importance to the field are CCAT, a proposed telescope facility led by Cornell scientists to be built in Chile's Atacama desert and singled out for strong support by Astro2010; the Cornell-affiliated Square Kilometer Array (SKA), a planned large array of radio telescopes that will survey the galaxy for neutron stars and conduct other large projects in cosmology and astrophysics; and science and instrumentation programs at the Cornell-managed Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

Referring to the SKA, the report noted its "unqualified enthusiasm for the science that this facility could deliver" and recommended "a staged program leading toward major participation."

The international facility, now under development, is designed to play a leading role in future research on the nature of gravity and what the universe looked like in its first moments.

James Cordes, professor of astronomy and principal investigator for the SKA's U.S. Technology Development Program, said the endorsement is one of many factors that will play into the project as it progresses. "The report will certainly influence the development of the SKA, but in complex ways, given the international aspect of a very large, long-term project," he said.

Cornell will continue to play a leading role in the international collaboration behind the project, he added, with a transition in the coming decade from technology development to the use of pathfinder telescopes now under construction at the two candidate sites in Australia and South Africa.

Also endorsed in the report were the ground-based Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), which will detect asteroids and explore the nature of dark energy and dark matter; the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), a space gravity wave observatory, and Nanograv, (the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves), which will use existing telescopes, including Arecibo, to use pulsars to detect gravitational waves.

LISA, LSST and Nanograv all involve Cornell researchers from the departments of astronomy and physics.

The decadal survey also mentioned Arecibo, calling it one of the world's "premier facilities" for centimeter-wavelength astronomy and endorsing its emphasis on two key projects: the detection of gravitational radiation using precise timing measurements of pulsars and the development of phased array feed systems.

The committee's support will help counter a reduction in National Science Foundation funding, said Don Campbell, professor of astronomy and director of Cornell's National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, which manages the observatory.

As members of the astronomy and physics departments enjoyed the report's good news, Martha Haynes, professor of astronomy and a member of the Astro2010 committee, enjoyed her colleagues' reactions.

"I've known about these things for a while, having been on Astro2010, but of course I was not able to say anything before Friday. So, it's nice for me to be finally able to talk about all our projects -- and in doing so, to celebrate Cornell," Haynes said. "It's a good day for us."

The Astro2010 Decadal Survey is available for download at http://books.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12951#description.