Europe unveils 20-year plan for future in astronomy

Nov. 26, 2008
Aided by large telescopes equipped with adaptive optics and other innovations, astronomy has entered a golden age--and, thanks to 50 years of cooperation (not to mention hundreds of years of leadership in the field), Europe is at the forefront.

Aided by large telescopes equipped with adaptive optics and other innovations, astronomy has entered a golden age--and, thanks to 50 years of cooperation (not to mention hundreds of years of leadership in the field), Europe is at the forefront. To keep up the pace, the Astronet network--backed by the European scientific community, supported by the European Commission, and coordinated by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS; the National Center for Scientific Research in France)--has just presented its roadmap for the future of European astronomy.

The European Southern Observatory's (ESO; München, Germany) proposed Extremely Large Telescope is ranked as one of two top-priority large ground-based projects. (The ESO currently operates the Very Large Telescope at its Paranal Observatory in Chile.)

In 2007, a top-level Science Vision was prepared to assess the most burning scientific questions over the next quarter century, ranging from dark energy to life on other planets. European astronomy now presents its Infrastructure Roadmap, a comprehensive 20-year plan to coordinate national and community investments to meet these challenges in a cost-effective manner. The Roadmap not only prioritizes the necessary new frontline research facilities from radio telescopes to planetary probes, in space and on the ground, but also considers such key issues as existing facilities, human resources, information, computing and telecommunications (ICT) infrastructure, education and outreach, and cost of operations as well as construction.

To build consensus on priorities in a very diverse community, the Science Vision and Roadmap were developed in an open process involving intensive interaction with the community through large open meetings and feedback via e-mail and the web. The result is a plan now backed by astronomers in 28 member and associated states of the European Union (with more than 500 million inhabitants).

Selected experts from across Europe contributed to the construction of the Astronet Roadmap. They identified and prioritized a set of new facilities to observe the Universe across the electromagnetic spectrum from radio waves to gamma rays; to open up new ways of probing the cosmos, such as gravitational waves; and to advance the exploration of our Solar System. In the process, they considered all the elements needed by a successful scientific enterprise, from global-scale cooperation on the largest mega-project to the need for training and recruiting skilled young scientists and engineers.

Largest optical telescope

The 42-meter-diameter mirror of ESO's European Extremely Large Telescope will make the E-ELT the largest optical/near-infrared telescope in the world. The science to be done with the E-ELT includes studies of exoplanets and discs, galaxy formation, and dark energy. "The top ranking of the E-ELT in the Roadmap is a strong endorsement from the European astronomical community," says ESO Director General Tim de Zeeuw. "This flagship project will indisputably raise the European scientific, technological, and industrial profile."

Among other recommendations, the Roadmap considers how to maximize the future scientific impact of existing facilities in a cost-effective manner. It also identifies a need for better access to state-of-the art computing and laboratory facilities, and for a stronger involvement of European high-tech industry in the development of future facilities. Moreover, success depends critically upon an adequate supply of qualified scientists, and of engineers in fields ranging from IT to optics. Finally, the Roadmap proposes a series of measures to enhance the public understanding of astronomy as a means to boost recruitment in science and technology in schools and universities across Europe.

Europe currently spends approximately 2 billion Euros a year on astronomy in the broadest sense. Implementing the Astronet Roadmap will require a funding increase of around 20%--less than 1 Euro per year per European citizen. Global cooperation will be needed--and is being planned--for several of the largest projects.

Some top-priority projects

1. Large-scale projects on the ground:

--the European Extremely Large Telescope

--the Square Kilometre Array, a vast radio telescope occupying large parts of a continent. The SKA is being planned by a worldwide consortium

2. Scientifically compelling instruments in a lower cost range:

--a 4 m European Solar Telescope, to be based in the Canary Islands

--an array of specialized optical telescopes to detect gamma-ray emission from black holes and other high-energy events across the Universe

--an underwater telescope to detect neutrinos (subatomic particles that can pass through the entire Earth and bring information on some of the most violent phenomena in the Universe)

3. Large space missions proposed for the coming decade:

--a mission to study gravitational waves from the Big Bang and black holes in the Universe

--an X-ray mission to study galaxies, galaxy clusters, and stars in unprecedented detail

--two proposed missions to study the planets Jupiter and Saturn and their satellites

4. Less-costly top-priority space projects:

--a mission designed to unlock the secrets of dark energy and dark matter

--a mission to understand the workings of the Sun in greater detail than ever before


Guy Monnet
ESO ASTRONET Coordinator
E-mail: [email protected]
Mobile: +49 171 407 6882

Michael Bode
Task Leader for the ASTRONET Roadmap, Head of the Astrophysics Research Institute at Astrophysics Research Institute at Liverpool John Moores University
E-mail: [email protected]
Phone: +44 151 231 2920/2919
Mobile: +44 7968 422312

Johannes Andersen
ASTRONET Board Chair, Director of the Nordic Optical Telescope on La Palma
Tel: +45 353 25934
E-mail: [email protected]

Jean-Marie Hameury
ASTRONET Coordinator, Deputy Director of the Institut National des Sciences de l'Univers at CNRS
Tel: +33 1 44 96 43 77
E-mail: [email protected]

About the Author

John Wallace | Senior Technical Editor (1998-2022)

John Wallace was with Laser Focus World for nearly 25 years, retiring in late June 2022. He obtained a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and physics at Rutgers University and a master's in optical engineering at the University of Rochester. Before becoming an editor, John worked as an engineer at RCA, Exxon, Eastman Kodak, and GCA Corporation.

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