Australian Astronomy: Beyond 2000—Astronomy decadal plan, 1996-2005

Australian Astronomy: Beyond 2000 is the 1996-2005 decadal plan for astronomy. It was published on 8 August 1995, and the mid-term review of the plan was conducted in June 2001.


Vision

As the Prime Minister of the time commented at the opening of the Anglo-Australian Telescope twenty years ago, Australia is an astronomical nation: it has been so throughout its entire history. In the present century, astronomy in Australia has contributed demonstrably to the scientific and cultural life of the nation. In the 21st Century, Australia, as the most technologically advanced nation in the southern hemisphere, should build on this astronomical heritage, by exploiting the synergy between science and technology in this oldest and most far-reaching of the sciences.

In the coming decade, we envisage Australia as a partner in what is clearly emerging as the world' foremost astronomical observatory - the European Southern Observatory, an international observatory based in the southern hemisphere – and playing a key role in the technological and scientific advances flowing from the new generation of international facilities. In this way, Australia can continue to enjoy the scientific, technological and cultural benefits of a successful astronomy program well into the 21st Century.

Strategy

The Review Committee identified a number of essential elements to develop Australian astronomy as one of the country's premier areas of fundamental research and a technological driving force. These are:

  • to foster Australia's special scientific and technological strengths;
  • to take full advantage of Australia's southern hemisphere location;
  • to exploit advanced technologies across the full electromagnetic and particle spectrum;
  • to integrate domestic and international facilities;
  • to continue to develop a comprehensive educational program which introduces large numbers of students to the excitement of fundamental discoveries;
  • to continue to train high quality PhD graduates for the discipline and related areas; and
  • to develop a funding strategy commensurate with the above requirements.

Decade plan

This document, the first of two volumes of the review report, presents a research strategy for Australian astronomy for the next decade. The second volume contains reports of the Scientific Subcommittees and other supporting documents. This ten-year plan was developed by means of a thorough and tough prioritisation of proposals, to determine those facilities which are absolutely essential for the maintenance of Australia's excellence in astronomy. A key step in this process was the ranking by the Review Committee of proposals for construction of, and access to, major national and international facilities in order of their scientific merit, and their importance to the astronomical community as a whole. The strategy embodied in this document was strongly endorsed by the Australian astronomical community at large at an open meeting held at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in December 1994. The facilities identified will enable Australian astronomers to continue making important advances in a broad array of fields such as the detection of planets around stars other than the sun, the formation of stars and galaxies, the power sources of quasars, and the physics of the early universe itself.

The plan envisages Australia's partnership in an integrated set of national and international astronomical facilities in the southern hemisphere. In this plan, the role of first-ranked national facilities, such as the Anglo-Australian Observatory (AAO) and the Australia Telescope National Facility (ATNF), is defined in terms of their uniqueness, and that of national resources in the universities (principally Mount Stromlo and Siding Springs Observatories [MSSSO]) is to provide essential support for the front-line facilities. Furthermore, in this approach, universities combine their strategic strength in developing pioneering facilities with their traditional role of educating students in a broad and expanding range of disciplines.

Top priority

The first priority of the astronomical community remains the same as it was in 1989, viz. to obtain significant access to a large optical/infrared telescope. To achieve this end the Review Committee believes that Australia should immediately accept the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) invitation to join ESO and participate in the world's premier astronomy project, the Very Large Telescope (VLT). Through ESO, the Australian share of a $500m project is affordable, feasible and timely. Membership of ESO (~$5M per annum) will maintain Australia's place among its peers for the foreseeable future, promoting Australian leadership of the organisation in some technologies.

Other priority capital projects

Consistent with this strategy, there are three further projects awaiting funding. The first is ready to commence at once, and the other two are awaiting design studies. They are, in order of priority after the proposal to join ESO:

  • an upgrade of the Australia Telescope to millimetre wavelengths;
  • development of instrumentation for space astronomy; and
  • involvement of Australia in construction of an extremely high energy cosmic ray facility.

Existing facilities

Access to, and active participation in, major international facilities as predicated by the decade plan, require a significant home base of support to maintain a solid foundation of research and training of research students. The Review Committee therefore places a high priority on the maintenance of existing front-line national facilities through the timely upgrading of instrumentation as technology and astronomical imperatives evolve.

Theoretical astrophysics

Over the past five years, support for theoretical astrophysics has increased as recommended in the 1989 Australian Science and Technology Council (ASTEC) report The Future of Australian Astronomy, notably through the creation by the Australian Research Council (ARC) of the Research Centre for Theoretical Astrophysics (RCfTA). The Review Committee recommends that operational support for theoretical astrophysics be maintained at least at the current proportion of funding for astronomy as a whole.

Next generation international facilities

There are two major international projects planned for commencement later in the decade which have wide support within the local astronomical community. Because of our strategic interests and expertise, Australia should endeavour to play a significant role in these, which are:

  • an international astronomical observatory on the Antarctic Plateau; and
  • a one-kilometre aperture cm-wave radio telescope (1kT).

These are both grand challenge projects, and there are conditions to be satisfied before commitments can be made. Successful completion of a site-testing program is a prerequisite for Antarctic observatory funding. Internationally endorsed selection of a viable design for a cm-wave project is a prerequisite for proposed 1kT funding. Furthermore, it is possible that ESO itself might be interested in joining one or other of these multinational projects, following completion of the VLT and the Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) early in the first decade of the 21st Century.

A further grand challenge project for the future is an international gravity wave observatory. For next-generation facilities for astronomy, the Review Committee sets a higher priority on Antarctic and radioastronomy developments, but recommends:

  • continuing technology development for gravity wave detection (which is of special significance to the Physics community).

International partners

As implied above, the development of new world class astronomical facilities is now almost exclusively the province of international consortia, with site selection being a prime consideration. This is a basic premise of our strategy. Australian membership of ESO would be synergistic with continued Anglo-Australian collaboration in the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT). Both parties' interests in the AAT remain symmetric in the era of 8m telescopes on a superior site in Chile. Australian national facilities can also be shared with the Asia-Pacific region, especially as a learning resource for scientifically developing nations. A Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) network is already functioning in the region. International collaboration is currently very strong with some 350 overseas astronomers visiting Australia each year for research.

Australian astronomy consortium

A formal body based on the structure of the Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering (AINSE), with memberships available to tertiary institutions and state and national facilities, should be established to promote Australian astronomical education and research. This body would be complementary to the highly successful astronomical society of Australia.

© 2017 Australian Academy of Science

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