14 July 2013

Astronomy in Europe: Mid-Term Review of Science Vision Report and Infrastructure Roadmap 2013

Astronet Mid-Term conference, Turku, Finland
The ASTRONET consortium of European funding agencies was formed in 2005 to assemble a comprehensive, science-based strategic plan for the development of all of European astronomy for the next 15-20 years. Its long-term Science Vision for European Astronomy (2007) was followed in 2008 by the Infrastructure Roadmap for the investments needed to realize this Vision.

After five years, the time is ripe to review recent scientific, technical and economic developments and update the plans for the next decade in this light. This “mid-term review” is now under way, and ASTRONET invites the criticisms, ideas and suggestions of the community on its draft report, soon to be made available for comment.

The conference started slowly on this Saturday morning in Turku, Finland. I heard someone from the organizers say that he feared he would have to speak to an empty room. But at the end a large group of persons where attending the conference.

At first glance, the report of Astronet Mid-Term 2013 is all joys and glories. The "Tap in the back" policy, The blue sky Astronomy as they call it. Things become more complicated as the plan unfolded and the comments where more critical than approval.

as I sat there taking it all in, I notice strait away who was in charge and who was not. Clearly you could see in which direction this was going. I imagine the "Mid-Term review" was more an reminder of how Astronomy in Europe will be played on rather than new ideas and new suggestions.

We heard different Speakers during the conference speaking on different branches of Astronomy, such as Astroparticle physics, Solar physics, Optical and Infra-Red Telescopes, Radio astronomy. Also there was a segment on how Europe could be more united, referring to Central and Eastern countries to be part of the Astronomical roadmap in Europe in the near and far future (ref. to Astronet 2013).

I got the impression from the conversations of the people from the board of committee that everybody in these branches of Astronomy is looking for the golden ticket. Everybody is having there own plans and desperately trying to make them fit within the Astronet planning. I guess nobody wants to be left out.

One thing is for sure, the Astronet roadmap is not obvious and there are many curves on the way, but it seems that the committee is going in a fast car without to much luggage and knows where it is going. The discussions seemed to be leaning on favor of lite project based system with direct active roles from the respective authorities rather than a big machine in terms of pushing the Astronet roadmap forward. It does not mean the projects can not be of large scales, it only means that Astronomers want to focus on the real work and not be overwhelm with a  behemoth one controlling big "agency".

As someone said in the audience: We should be reminded often that Astronomy is more than profits and gains of capital, but also a research of our self as humans and seeing and understanding the big picture. In a sense, a more human way to achieve our goals.

The European Astronomical Society has many programs and projects expected to be accomplished in short or long term. The Astronet roadmap includes most of them and will represent the goals Europe has given itself. Here is a link for The Astronet Infrastructure roadmap: A strategic plan for European Astronomy.

Astronet's major role is to define priorities ensuring that the goals of the scientists meet those of the funding agencies. Two ground-based infrastructure projects emerge as top priorities: the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). The first, a very ambitious project driven by ESO (European Space Observatory), is already in an advanced stage of study, whereas the SKA–comprising thousands of antennas making the total collecting area close to a million square meters–is still in early stages of development. Other projects, which operate on smaller budgets, were also classified top priority, such as the European Solar Telescope (EST), the Cherenkov Telescope Array (CTA), and the underwater neutrino detector KM3NeT.

Also high on the priority list is obviously the  large-scale missions like the gravitational-wave observatory LISA and the X-ray observatory XEUS/IXO first on the list, followed by the search for giant planets with TandEM or LAPLACE, and ExoMars. The highest priority medium-scale projects include Gaia data analysis and processing (Milky way mapping), EUCLID (Dark Energy), or the Solar Orbiter, a mission devoted to studying the Sun. All these space missions are driven by the European Space Agency (ESA).

The funding of such programs are enormous. Many governmental bodies of different European country are supporting Astronet's roadmap. In addition the private companies and the industrial sectors are involved in the process and join the effort. But to be honnest many felt that the funding could be picked up a bit. The returns of profits and technologies demanded by the private companies often does not match the scientific process and therefore create friction between the two bodies.

The European Astronomical Society is also counting on training a new generation of Astronomers. As Astronomy is changing rapidly the training process is crucial and should be adapted to the new astronomy Europe is facing. Education is also an important part of the process.  Public outreach especially within the community of astronomers involved creates a sense of involvement and open forum discussion opportunities that bound the community more together.

Next year in Geneva, Switzerland the Astronet 2014 will give us a better view of the big picture. Let's hope the community is still pulling together for a bright and shinny united Europe in Astronomy.

Astronet Official website
Here is a link from ESO on Astronet: HERE (.pdf version)
Wikipedia: Astronet


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