Understanding the connections between stars and the worlds that orbit them, from nascent disks of dust and gas through formation and evolution, is an important scientific goal for the next decade. The effort to identify habitable Earth-like worlds in other planetary systems and search for the biochemical signatures of life will play a critical role in determining whether life exists elsewhere in the universe.
Over the next decade, a range of complementary observations—from radio to gamma rays, gravitational waves, neutrinos, and high-energy particles—will enable investigations into the most energetic processes in the universe and address larger questions about the nature of dark matter, dark energy, and cosmological inflation. These growing capabilities will enable closer study of neutron stars, white dwarfs, black hole collisions, stellar explosions, and the birth of our universe.
Research in the coming decade will revolutionize our understanding of the origins and evolution of galaxies, from the cosmic webs of gas that feed them to the formation of stars. New observational capabilities across the electromagnetic spectrum along with computation and theory will help resolve the rich workings of galaxies on all scales.
The survey’s key recommendations for space- and ground-based initiatives are summarized below. The full report provides detailed guidance on the implementation of major programs and which programs or projects are the most urgent within their category. The report emphasizes that a range of scales and capabilities are necessary for a healthy, balanced, and visionary program.
The past decade has been one of extraordinary discoveries in astronomy and astrophysics, including:
The decadal survey identifies the most compelling science challenges and frontiers in astronomy and astrophysics and presents a comprehensive research strategy to advance astronomy and astrophysics in the next decade and beyond. This is the seventh decadal survey for astronomy and astrophysics conducted over the history of the National Academies, and like its predecessors, it will serve as a guide for scientists, policy makers, and agencies invested in the astronomical sciences.
This study’s key objective was to map the national and international scientific landscape and to chart a path for investment, identifying programs with transformational scientific potential and new observational capabilities. The recommendations in this report are meant to support the people who drive innovation and discovery, and to promote the technologies and tools needed to carry out the science. The report also recommends sustaining activities on a broad range of cost and timescales, as well as activities that enable future visionary projects by maturing them scientifically and technically.
The National Academies selected committee members in a process independent of sponsoring agencies after casting a wide net for participant recommendations. Members of the 20-person steering committee were selected to cover as fully as possible the scientific scope of the survey, the range of observational (ground, space, and particle/gravitational astrophysics) and theoretical disciplines, as well as technical and managerial background in space and/or ground-based facilities, and to comprise as representative a group of experts as possible in terms of individual, institutional, and geographical demographics. National Academies policies governing potential conflicts of interest by steering committee and panel members were strictly enforced. In particular, broad and open-minded thinkers were sought out as opposed to advocates for individual missions or subfields.
The information gathering and deliberative phases of the decadal survey were carefully coordinated. Members of the astronomical community were invited to submit whitepapers to the survey, and these papers formed the foundation and starting point for all of the panel deliberations. The survey received 573 science whitepapers in early 2019, contributed by more than 4500 authors from the astronomical community. A second call for APC (Activity, Project, and State of Profession Consideration) whitepapers in July 2019 elicited 294 responses. Every whitepaper was assigned to and read by one or more of the decadal panels.
The decadal survey appointed 13 panels as listed below. All in all, these panels included 127 members. Each panel drafted its own report with suggestions for the steering committee to consider as it held its own deliberations to reach its recommendations for the main report. To underscore the importance of the panel reports, they have been published together with the main report as appendices.
State of the Profession Panel
For the first time, the decadal survey included a panel specifically focused on the state of the profession and societal impacts. The panel’s report, published as an appendix to the decadal survey, provided critical input for the steering committee’s recommendations related to workforce and demographic issues in the field as well as areas of concern and importance to the community.
Sponsoring agencies briefed the committee on plausible budget scenarios but also asked that the committee be aspirational when setting scientific goals. The report recommends and ranks highest priority research activities and provides decision rules, where appropriate, to account for deviations in the projected budget or other unanticipated discoveries.
The field of astronomy and astrophysics is poised to tackle some questions that are so grand that the facilities and instruments needed to address them require commitment and timelines beyond the decade. Addressing these challenges requires re-imagining how large missions are developed and implemented. In particular, the most ambitious strategic missions demand more significant early investments in maturing mission concepts and technologies prior to adoption, with checks and course corrections along the way.
This decadal survey was sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of High Energy Physics, and the Air Force Office of Space Research (AFOSR). These federal agencies all participate in different aspects of the U.S. space- and ground-based astronomy and astrophysics program.
Report Cover Images: NASA/ESA; NSF/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet; Illustris Collaboration; NASA Goddard; NASA/JPL-Caltech; NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech • Science Theme Images: ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser; Event Horizon Telescope collaboration; NASA, ESA, STScI/AURA • Space and Ground Based Initiatives: ESA/Hubble & NASA; Rubin Observatory/NSF/Aura • Foundations Images: iStock; Illustris Collaboration; NASA Goddard • Achievements Images: R. Hurt/Caltech-JPL; NASA/W. Stenzel; Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration; ESO/L. Calçada/spaceengine.org; Northrop Grumman; NAOJ