Monday, January 17, 2011

Essential Astronomy Research

Last week I attended the annual winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society. After hearing such a broad range of scientific presentations, I always wonder what research would survive the drastic funding cuts that might be required to balance the federal budget. Some astronomy research has very obvious practical applications, while other topics have nearly universal public appeal or transformative spin-off potential. Below are my "top 5" essential research areas, starting close to home and moving outward.

1. Killer Asteroids: Few people would seriously argue against the idea of finding all of the asteroids that cross the Earth's orbit and could pose an impact risk. Astronomers believe there are tens of thousands of potentially hazardous asteroids in our solar system, of which the 1200 largest have already been found. It is widely believed that the dinosaurs met their demise from a comet impact in the Gulf of Mexico, and there's no reason it couldn't also happen to us.

2. Space Weather: The Sun is constantly spewing radiation and charged particles towards the Earth that can harm orbiting satellites, interfere with communications systems, and damage electrical grids. Scientists monitor our nearest star for such activity, and try to understand the basic physical processes that drive this "space weather" by comparing the Sun to other nearby stars. With our growing reliance on GPS and cell phones, this work is more important than ever.

3. Alien Worlds: Over the past 15 years, more than 500 planets have been discovered around distant stars. With better technology and larger telescopes, astronomers are now finding planets nearly as small as the Earth that may be in the "habitable zones" of their stars. It is virtually certain that in the next few years we will identify dozens of Earth-like planets around other stars. Are we alone in the universe? We will soon answer this 1000-year-old question.

4. Dark Energy: Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe is expanding, but recent studies of distant supernova explosions have shown that the expansion is accelerating -- the tell-tale sign of "dark energy" in the fabric of space-time itself. The origin and nature of this energy is still unknown, but it accounts for nearly 3/4 of all the mass-energy in the universe. If we could somehow tap into this cosmic battery, we would have a limitless supply of renewable energy.

5. Cosmic Fate: Observations of the cosmic microwave background confirm that the universe began with a "big bang" more than 13.7 billion years ago. There is no way to see beyond this original cosmic fireball, so astronomers study the most distant galaxies to try to determine the ultimate fate of our universe. Will gravity pull everything back together in a spectacular "big crunch", or will the cosmos expand forever into an icy darkness? Stay tuned.

Much of the basic research in astronomy can be related to one or more of these grand themes. The curiosity-driven research that falls outside of these areas can be considered like art -- a luxury that any civilized society can afford. The government is now more than a quarter through the current fiscal year and still doesn't have a budget. When the time comes to make hard decisions, let's hope our representatives in Washington can see beyond the next election and invest in the future through science.