Decadal bullets

So Astro 2010 is on the streets. His Darkness Peter Coles already has an interesting post out in which he makes  two suggestions – first that  the European plan should be deliberately orthogonal to the US plan, and second that we need something similar – a strategic review process that is independent of our funding agency.

It was a fun day for me, as LSST came out so well and I was there at the all hands meeting. Folks were optimistic but uncertain. Project Manager Don Sweeney had a bottle of whisky ready for himself if the news was bad, but as the news was good he quickly got the hotel to rustle up champagne. Later that day I toured the Steward Mirror Lab and saw the LSST blank. It is very weird, having the primary and the tertiary in one block of glass. And this morning that moment was immortalised, as I saw a photo of myself at the Mirror Lab on the front page of the Arizona Daily Star ! But you have to squint. I am third from the left in the line on the ground.

I tweeted the results as they came out in Blandford’s presentation. You can still see the tweets here. I don’t think I am quite ready for a considered analysis – I need time for the dust of a thousand truths to settle on my head – so here are just a few highlight bullets.

  • Space first priority is WFIRST, an IR sky survey mission. Took me by surprise. Seems to be a recast JDEM. An issue for Euclid fans as we thought the JDEM folk would get offered a 20% buy-in to Euclid. Head spinning. This one is fun but scary.
  • LISA beats IXO. Really bad news for X-ray astronomy as a field. At first I thought EXIST would sneak up, but actually it is killed dead. X-ray astronomy needs a really serious re-grouping exercise.
  • Beef up the Explorer program from 40M to 100M per year. Spot on. Fantastic. Start a ground based equivalent of the Explorer program at 40M/yr. Again, fantastic.
  • LSST number one on the ground. What can I say. Except … can we buy into PanSTARRS as well please ? And can we have another go at UK/ESO ? Sorry, somewhat biased here.
  • Choose quickly between TMT and GMT for a 25% federal buy-in. (Both projects are mostly private.). NOAO and Steward folks didn’t like this, and wanted to buy in at half as much to both. Steward Mirror Lab has already started on the GMT mirrors. Saw one being polished.  But its all about doing a deal with ESO, dudes.
  • Buy in to SPICA, ACTA, and CCAT. All excellent choices, but there could have been others too.
  • In the Q&A session, Martha Haynes was asked about SKA, and she said three fascinating things. I paraphrase. One : its really exciting. Two : happening too fast, no money left, sorry. Three : technological readiness questionable. There are some dots you can join there. Please note the above statements are my personal take and not verbatim what Haynes said.

Finally, a point I would make that gels with Peter’s post. When asked why LSST came first, they said “it looks ready to go” and that is correct. But I think the more important point is the groundswell of opinion that they couldn’t ignore. LSST has very extensive “science collaborations” who are working closely with the project, and produced an amazingly comprehensive and convincing Science Book, involving hundreds of scientists. A key point is that those people didn’t just sit on a committee and pontificate about what they would like. They did huge amounts of real work. This makes it unambiguous that they are serious.  The same thing is true for PanSTARRS, but at a smaller level as it is a limited private consortium. The interested scientists did not sit back and wait for things to fall in their lap.

19 Responses to Decadal bullets

  1. […] ground-based astronomy for the next decade or so over on Cosmic Variance.  There’s also a piece by Andy Lawrence over on The e-Astronomer’s blog. I’ll just mention that Top of the Pops for space-based […]

  2. Michael Merrifield says:

    On your last point, I must admit that I have rather mixed feelings. It is, as you say, a lot of work to produce science books, but it isn’t actually that difficult or even particularly enlightening to generate quite a lot of the text, as one can always multiply up the current studies by some large factor to create a swathe of new science. One would hope that the reality is that most of what each of these new facilities will do is beyond what we have even thought of today, as was certainly the case with that archetypal planned facility, HST, whose original science case had largely been superceded before it was launched.

    So, yes, we have to make a convincing case that even in the unlikely event that nothing unexpected shows up there is still plenty of excellent science to be done with a new facility. But it would be unhealthy to get into a whole “my science book is fatter than your science book” mentality when it comes to winning the argument for such facilities, as quite a lot of the community’s effort involved in such activity is likely to be nugatory, and would surely be better invested in doing more and better science with the facilities that we have today.

  3. andyxl says:

    Mike – I do agree that we don’t want fat science books to be compulsory, but when it does occur its impressive. Also, some such things turn out to be padding when you start reading and some don’t. The key thing here is genuine interaction with the project, which means its not just apple pie stuff. For example, LSST is running data challenges and the science collab members are helping to test the results.The quality of nitty-grittiness varies of course. Don’t ask me which chapters are which or I will lose friends.

  4. halfastro says:

    The one phrase that struck me that no one else has mentioned is that during the GSMT discussion, it was mentioned mirrors had been cast. Couldn’t help but wondering if that was a clue that GMT should be given the inside track.

    • andyxl says:

      On the other hand, Tim Heckman described the need to discuss with ESO how to get Southern Hemisphere large telescope access for the US. As TMT will be in the North, and GMT in the South, this argument seems to give TMT the inside track !

  5. […] will be read, chewed over, and discussed at length online in the weeks to come see e.g. here, here, here, here); if you’re interested, the report is publicly available here, all 225 pages of it […]

  6. Paddy Leahy says:

    # LISA beats IXO. Really bad news for X-ray astronomy as a field.

    Why not say “Really good news for gravitational wave astronomy as a field”?

    In fact, IXO is by no means out of the game as they are ranked right next to each other, support for LISA is conditional on a successful ESA Pathfinder, and both are partnerships with ESA. ESA could probably reverse this prioritisation if it really wanted to…of course, LISA also has strong support within ESA.

    Even if IXO does get kicked into the long grass, before we get too gloomy about X-ray astronmy let’s remember that
    there are six operating X-ray satellites several of which are likely to be still running at the end of this decade, and there are several funded missions due for launch in the next few years including Astro-H, Nu-STAR, e-Rosita, and GEMS. So X-ray astronomy is hardly moribund.

  7. andyxl says:

    Paddy – yes indeed very good news for grav waves. Pardon my bias, I did grow up an X-ray astronomer. The problem is long term and about technical staff. Right now for working observers, as you say, it is a golden age. But if there is nothing to build between now and IXO, how do you pay the engineers and developers and instrument scientists ? If they leave when IXO starts in earnest there will be nobody with the right skills. There has always been the same worry for radio astronomy, which is why the whol pathfinder thing has been so sensible.

  8. Mark McCaughrean says:

    As pointed out by Paddy, Andy, there are quite a few smaller X-ray missions already under preparation, so this might help with the important community continuity issue you mention.

    Keep in mind also that the second space priority (ahead of LISA) in the Decadal report was to push for a vigorous small-mission programme, and I’m sure the X-ray astronomers will be all over that. Similarly, I can’t help thinking we’ll see a significant interest from them in our just-released call for the M3 medium-mission slot on the ESA side.

    Although I fully accept that some science needs flagship missions (after all, I’m involved in the reputedly rapacious JWST :-)), the old dictum about not putting all your eggs in one basket also rings true, and I’m sure that the X-ray community has plenty of creative, smaller mission concepts up its sleeve.

  9. andyxl says:

    Mark and Paddy – re small missions etc : yes, understood. I am just waiting for Martin Elvis to chip in saying “I told you so”. At the Leicester-50 meeting recently he gave a talk contrasting the gargantuan style of some X-ray astronomy with the alternative Leicester style of getting more smaller things quicker, and I think he said canning IXO could even be a good thing. Did I get that right Martin ?

  10. Simon says:

    ME’s slides are available here (session 10):

    • Mark McCaughrean says:

      Thanks very much for posting that link, Simon. Of course, it makes for even more interesting reading now that the Decadal has reported and that IXO came 4th. This appears to have met Martin’s criteria for being either 1st (and thus getting done) or \geq 3rd (and thus not kept alive in a zombie state on the US side).

      As for Martin’s statement that “ESA doesn’t do small missions”, this is presently true, but we are (at the urging of our SPC) re-examining this policy. Of course, small missions mean different things to different people, both in terms of how big is small and in terms of the sciento-political process surrounding them, but given the Decadal’s decision to put a vigorous small programme as second priority in their space list, interesting possibilities may be raised …

      • Paul Crowther says:


        With CERN trimming back their budget for the next few years, do you anticipate pressure from member states for ESA to do the same? This is highlighted in Geoff Brunfiel’s graphic from this week’s Nature item. Of course ESO would like to increase subscriptions to (partially) fund E-ELT in the next few years, but there will no doubt be pressure for a rethink on what is politically acceptable for subscriptions (not just from UK).


  11. richard wade says:

    You may already be aware of some of this, but the ESA budgets are agreed at the Ministerial meetings, which only happen every few years. I don’t think we are due for one for another couple of years with the current levels being agreed through 2013. Of course it will be down to the UKSA to agree the UK position (or to advise the Minister). It is interesting to note however that unlike the situation with CERN and ESO, the vote on the ESA Mandatory Science Budget requires unanimity.

    • Paul Crowther says:


      Indeed Dec 2008 Ministerial formally agreed ESA budget for 2009-2013, but some European finance ministers (Greece anyone?) might be anxious to revisit this in view of the economic downturn.

      Still, ESA’s upward spiral is surely another reason to be relieved that it is no longer STFC’s problem? I always felt ESA subs distorted “astro/space science” expenditure with respect to other STFC areas. On the subject of subscriptions, is there any word on Lord Drayson’s recommendation that risks arising from NNI/exchange rate changes being removed from Research Councils to BIS/HMT?


  12. Mark McCaughrean says:


    Richard has answered part of your question, inasmuch as yes, our budget is fixed every three years or so at the Ministerial meetings, with the next one due in early 2012. In principle, that means we’re free to spend at the agreed level until then, although in practice, at least one Member State has said they may miss paying their subscription, and we’re under considerable pressure from the Member States to reduce costs at the moment. One small but significant consequence is that we are currently facing a hiring freeze from September 1 until the end of the year.

    Richard’s also right that the ESA mandatory budget requires unanimity and this introduces more inertia than at ESO or CERN. Obviously we see this as a good thing in the space science programme (part of the mandatory budget), as it allows for better long-term planning, but we do not see ourselves as bullet-proof at all. Despite a 3.5% year-on-year increase in our budget from the last Ministerial, I don’t think many of us expect to see the same in 2012.

    While the ESA budget has been rising as shown in that graphic, I think it’s important to remember that the bulk of that is in optional programmes, specifically subscribed to by the Member States, some of them new-ish (robotic exploration) and some highly relevant to European governments (Earth observation). Cutting the optional programmes is relatively easy and thus you might see that go down again, but cutting the mandatory base ESA budget (which includes space science) is harder.

    However, it’s also important to keep in mind that the great majority of our funding ends up in European industry and the juste retour policy guarantees that each country gets back what it put in (minus our internal overheads). Thus, to a significant extent, ESA can be seen as a high-tech (national) industrial subsidy scheme that also does interesting science and technology, rather than vice versa.

    As we’ve seen during the financial crisis, some countries have seen investing in their industries as an important element of recovery and they may continue to do so; not all European countries were quite as profligate as the UK in the early part of the 2000s, and thus not all are facing such swingeing public sector cuts now.

    I’m not saying that we won’t face calls for cuts, not at all, but ESA has a fairly complicated make up, and parallels with ESO and CERN are not necessarily directly applicable.

    • Paul Crowther says:


      Thanks for your candour. Agreed that industrial juste retour is key to distinguishing between ESA and CERN/ESO. Of course many of us with a focus on ground-based astro are naturally concerned about the affordability of ESO subscriptions to the UK, especially E-ELT. Ironically, having missed out on industrial contracts for VLT construction that pre-dated UK accession to ESO, UK industry *is* gearing up to benefit from E-ELT contruction which could be put at risk if STFC’s settlement for CSR 2010 turns out to be as bad as many fear.


    • Paul Crowther says:


      Thanks for your candour. Agreed that industrial juste retour is key to distinguishing between ESA and CERN/ESO. Of course many of us with a focus on ground-based astro are naturally concerned about the affordability of ESO subscriptions to the UK, especially E-ELT. Ironically, having missed out on industrial contracts for VLT construction that pre-dated UK accession to ESO, UK industry *is* gearing up to benefit from E-ELT contruction which could be put at risk if STFC’s settlement for CSR 2010 turns out to be as bad as many fear.


  13. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jonathan Tedds, Paul Crowther. Paul Crowther said: Mark McCaughrean: `ESA can be seen as a high-tech industrial subsidy scheme that also does interesting science & tech' […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: