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Hickson Compact Group 87, a group of four galaxies
located approximately 400 million light years from
Earth in the constellation of Capricorn; Hubble Heritage
Team photo

The Promise of Space

The universe has been a source of fascination for thousands of years, but only in the last few decades have scientists been able to do what once was just imagined — discovering planets outside Earth’s solar system and galaxies near the edge of the visible universe. The scientific and technical revolution behind these accomplishments continues, promising additional major findings.

But setting priorities will be necessary to ensure that resources go to the right places. A new report from the National Research Council identifies the most important initiatives for advancing ground- and space-based astronomy in the next decade. If undertaken, these projects would shed light on some key challenges facing astronomers, such as identifying the total amount of matter in the universe, its age, its evolution, and its ability to support life; understanding the formation of black holes; studying the development of stars and their planetary systems; and exploring how the astronomical environment affects Earth.

The report provides a strategy for how astronomy funding should be allocated in the next decade. Top billing goes to developing the Next Generation Space Telescope. Designed to detect light from the first stars, the telescope has the potential to revolutionize understanding of how galaxies, stars, and planets form. It will have 100 times the sensitivity of the Hubble telescope and provide images 10 times as sharp. Precedence also should be given to developing a ground-based giant segmented mirror telescope, which could provide the means to trace the evolution of galaxies and study the matter between galaxies about which very little is known.

Several other major initiatives also should get high priority, the report says. For example, completion of the Constellation-X Observatory would make it the premier instrument for studying the formation of black holes of all sizes. A large survey telescope would expand the important study of how objects in the universe change and move over short periods of time. In particular, it could catalog 90 percent of the near-Earth objects larger than 300 meters in diameter, allowing researchers to assess the threat they pose to this planet. Also on the list is the Terrestrial Planet Finder, the most ambitious science mission ever attempted by NASA. The unmanned spacecraft would study planets around nearby stars and search for evidence of life.

To ensure the best use of funds, new initiatives should be balanced with the completion of other important projects, such as the Space Infrared Telescope Facility and a large array of radio telescopes to be constructed in Chile. Before new facilities are built, funding should be earmarked for operations, continuous instrument upgrades, and data analysis and related theory. And adequate support of unrestricted grants — those not tied to a specific facility or program — is crucial. New initiatives should not be undertaken at the expense of these grants, which enable scientists to explore uncharted areas in astronomy and astrophysics.

Effective leadership is essential to coordinate the national facilities and those operated by universities and independent observatories, and to develop facilities too large for individual institutions or small partnerships, the report says. In addition, international collaboration is recommended for several initiatives, including the Next Generation Space Telescope.

Opportunities for astronomers to work more closely with educational institutions, from elementary schools to universities, also should be expanded, the report adds. Pilot programs should be initiated that bring astronomy and education departments together to develop new astronomy-based courses for future teachers, and coordination should be improved among the federal programs that fund educational initiatives in astronomy. — Molly Galvin

Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium. Astronomy and Astrophysics Survey Committee, Board on Physics and Astronomy and Space Studies Board, Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Applications (2000, approx. 164 pp.; ISBN 0-309-07031-7; available from National Academy Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $29.95 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was co-chaired by Christopher McKee, professor of physics and of astronomy, University of California, Berkeley; and Joseph Taylor Jr., professor of physics and dean of the faculty, Princeton University, Princeton, N.J. The study was funded by NASA, National Science Foundation, and Keck Foundation.


Ensuring IT Leadership

The integration of information technology (IT) systems into nearly all aspects of society continues to alter many facets of daily life and undergirds the nation’s economy. “Social applications” of such systems link people, organizations, and technology for everything from shopping and personal health care to manufacturing and inventory management. These applications, however, present a host of additional challenges that research must address to keep up with the frenetic pace of innovation and to provide the understanding needed to build even more-complex systems.

Today’s innovations draw from a long history of research that has focused primarily on the components of IT systems — microprocessors, memories, network switches, and software programs. But if society is to go on benefiting from information technology, research must not only continue in these areas but also expand to encompass work on large-scale systems and the social applications that they support, says a new report from a committee of the Research Council.

The nation’s IT research base appears to be thriving. Federal funding has grown steadily since 1995, and proposals have been made to boost it by another $1 billion over its 1999 levels. Industrial support for research and development also is increasing and private firms are building more research laboratories. But much of the increase in IT research over the past decade has been in applied research that is linked to specific government and industry needs. Although the IT industry has grown and is highly profitable, barriers to investing in long-term research — such as the unpredictable nature of fundamental research and a firm’s need to quickly bring new products to market — persist. To fill this void and support a broader research agenda, government investments in fundamental research must be increased, the report says. Part of this increase should support efforts by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to establish significant research programs in large-scale systems and social applications. Other federal agencies and companies that are significant users of IT systems also should be involved in this work to ensure that researchers understand the problems faced in operational systems and that they can develop feasible solutions.

A number of programs, such as NSF’s Digital Government initiative, have been created to link federal agencies more closely to the IT research community and to involve researchers from the social sciences, business, and law, but more initiatives are needed, the report says. Universities and industry can play significant roles in helping bridge the divide between technologists and these other communities.

To help determine where research dollars should be invested, the U.S. Bureau of the Census should work with NSF to develop more-effective procedures for classifying data on money spent by government and industry on IT research and development. Improved data would allow government and industry leaders to make better-informed decisions on the direction of IT research and would provide greater consistency in determining trends. — Bob Ludwig

Making IT Better: Expanding Information Technology Research to Meet Society’s Needs. Committee on Information Technology Research in a Competitive World, Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Applications (2000, approx. 202 pp.; ISBN 0-309-06991-2; available from National Academy Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $29.95 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was co-chaired by Samuel H. Fuller, vice president of research and development, Analog Devices Inc., Norwood, Mass., and David G. Messerschmitt, Roger A. Strauch Professor, department of electrical engineering, University of California, Berkeley. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation.


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