2016: A Golden Year in the Golden Age of Astronomy | SFN #188

Today, I’m going to share some of those trends that I’ve noticed developing in 2016 with an eye towards what I think is in store for us in 2017 and beyond.

Published by Tony Darnell on 30th Dec, 2016

Hello Space Fans and welcome to the final 2016 edition of Space Fan News. This week, throughout my career in astronomy, including five years of making Space Fan News and three years doing live weekly hangouts on Thursday, I’ve noticed trends in astronomy research and space exploration. Today, I’m going to share some of those trends that I’ve noticed developing in 2016 with an eye towards what I think is in store for us in 2017 and beyond.

I’ve said many times, both in our live hangouts and on Space Fan News, that we live in the golden age of astronomy. Never before have we been in a position to learn so much about and explore more deeply, the nature of the universe we live in. Just this year alone saw the birth of an entirely new astronomical field of study: gravitational wave astronomy, and I think we nearing an inflection point where our discoveries really start to take off.

Over the years I’ve seen many trends developing in the areas of both human spaceflight and in astronomical discovery and I want to share with you today some of the biggest trends I’ve seen in 2016.

First let’s start with NASA. I’ve watched NASA for a long time and I just finished a five year stint with the Space Telescope Science Institute - a major contractor for NASA that operates the Hubble Space Telescope and will operate its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope. I’ve also been privileged to talk with many NASA scientists and engineers over the years in our weekly hangouts and have gleaned a few insights.

First, the trends I see with NASA aren’t that surprising for many of us. NASA has always been a political football and I don’t see that changing with any future administration, so I think it’s safe to conclude that NASA isn’t going to see any major increases in funding any time soon.

No one can argue that NASA is a phenomenal value, the amount of science and discoveries per tax dollar spent is one of the best you’ll ever find in government. So with that in mind, here’s where I think NASA is heading.

With respect to human spaceflight, I see NASA playing a more diminished role - it’s just too expensive for NASA to do much more than it’s doing now with the budget it has. NASA does have it’s Journey to Mars initiative, but it is so ill defined and unfocused, I don’t see much happening there. Private companies will take up some of the slack: SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, companies like that will move forward in the U.S. efforts to getting humans into space, but I don’t see NASA taking a lead role itself.

I’m also a bit skeptical of Elon Musk and his plans for SpaceX to get humans to Mars in the next decade. I worry that his rush to do something, anything, will come at the expense of safety and lost lives. Something that, if it happened, would catastrophically delay even further any U.S. attempt at getting humans to Mars. There is also the International Space Station, which NASA is committed to until 2025 and maybe longer, so there is that, but again not much else when it comes to humans in space.

What I have seen is other countries, notably China, really starting to progress in getting humans into space and I’ll talk more about that in a minute, but I think 2016 marked the beginning of the end of U.S. leadership in human space flight.

Having said that though, NASA excels and will always excel in robot exploration and discovery. NASA has rovers down pat as well as space telescopes and orbiting probes. The successes of probes dating back to Mariner and Voyager and continuing with Galileo, Cassini and New Horizons to Pluto means that NASA will probably lead in the robotic discovery business for quite a while.

And let’s not forget space telescope operation like Hubble, Chandra, NeoWISE and so many more. In 2017 we’re going to see major progress on getting the James Webb Space Telescope ready for launch in 2018 and in August we’ll see the launch of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) which will do for exoplanet research what Hubble has done for deep space cosmology.

And in the 2020’s we get to look forward to the launch of the Wide Field Infrared Survey Satellite (WFIRST), a space telescope that was made possible by the donation of the Hubble-like chassis that was donated to NASA by the National Reconnaissance Office back in 2012.

So NASA has a bright future in many respects, but I remain skeptical about its leadership when it comes to human space flight.

The bright spots there (in my mind) are countries like China and India who are now really starting to spread their wings when it comes to launching people into space. China in particular has been pretty aggressive about going back to the moon in the 2020’s and Mars a little after that. Given that it can put the full weight of the government behind getting resources, China isn’t as constrained as NASA when it comes to big projects, so I’m looking there for the latest in human spaceflight.

We also have a lot to look forward to from the European Space Agency, they are picking up speed with their own plans to explore the solar system with programs like EXOMars, but what I am most excited about with the Europeans is their desire to revive and expand on plans to build LISA, the Large Interferometer Space Antenna.

You may remember back in February, I told you about the first time observations that were made by LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, of gravitational waves created when two 30 solar mass black holes merged. Those observations opened up an entirely new field of astronomical research and the next big step in that capability of observing them is LISA.

I reported to you this past year (and we had a hangout with the project team on it) that the LISA Pathfinder mission was a resounding success. It’s goal was to test, on a small scale, the technology that would be used on LISA, so the road in clear to move forward with the mission for anyone with the money and motivation. And I think that will be ESA, they’ve already announced back in October that after the success of LIGO and LISA Pathfinder, they are picking up the program where the NASA and ESA collaboration left off when NASA dropped out of it.

In the same way that the U.S. dropped the ball on the Superconducting Supercollider back in the nineties which and was picked up by the Europeans to become the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva Switzerland, I think the European Space Agency will lead the effort to build LISA and usher in this new chapter in space astronomy.

The kinds of discoveries that came from the LHC will be rivalled by those that come out of LISA. We’ll be able to see for the first time gravitational waves created by merging galaxies and get an understanding of the universe in ways that simply wasn’t possible before.

NASA has shown renewed interest in the program. It dropped out a few years ago because it simply had to prioritize where it spent its money, and since at the time, no one had seen gravitational waves yet, they went with other projects, like WFIRST. It probably will be involved with LISA in some way, but it won’t lead the effort. I think that will fall to ESA.

OK so that’s the trends I see in space astronomy, the golden age continues with some astonishing new ground-based telescopes being built. There’s the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) which is currently slated to be built on Mauna Kea in Hawaii but may have to be moved to Chile if they don’t get the permits.

The TMT will be the most advanced and capable optical, near-infrared, and mid-infrared observatory ever built. It will integrate the latest innovations in precisions control, segmented mirror design, and adaptive optics. I’m not clear on when it will be open for business but it’ll be sometime in the 2020’s.

We also have LSST, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope being built as well, coming online in a few years and will image the entire sky every few days. The torrent of data from LSST with be among the largest data flows ever created by humanity. The discoveries made possible by those images will be limited only by our imagination.

Ground-based telescopes have long been the backbone of astronomical research and that trend isn’t going anywhere anytime soon and surveys in particular are well-suited to telescopes built here on Earth because they can look at large areas of the sky over and over again, while space telescopes are operated in a sort of point-and-shoot mode where time is requested by astronomers to look at one particular target for a specified period.

Well that’s it for this year Space Fans, I hope you’ll stick with me for 2017 and learn more about these and other trends I haven’t mentioned. I also want you to be aware of a weekly live hangout series held every Thursday at 3pm Eastern Time on this channel where we talk with astronomers and engineers from all walks of astronomy to find out about the latest research so please join us live if you can and ask questions or you can watch after the fact if you can’t.

Special thanks to all of the Space Fan News Patreon Patrons, this past year was made possible in large part by your support, and I want to thank you for continuing, SFN wouldn’t happen without you. Thanks to all of you for watching and as always, Keep Looking Up!


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