Eagerly awaited. The MAP mission will chart details of the microwave background radiation.

NASA Told to Keep On Stargazing

WASHINGTON, D.C.--A blue-ribbon panel has urged NASA to follow up quickly on recent stunning astronomy successes, from the mapping of the cosmic microwave background to the discovery of new planets. In a report expected to be released next month, the 50-member panel convened by the National Research Council (NRC) recommends that the space agency give a high priority to space-based instruments, which could boost the fortunes of several planned missions.

At the top of the panel's list of ideas is refining a map of the microwave background radiation, says panel chair Patrick Thaddeus of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The top billing implicitly nudges NASA to keep a satellite called the Microwave Anisotropy Probe (MAP) on track for its August 2000 launch. The committee also lauds NASA's efforts to find young galaxies and planets beyond our solar system.

The committee also recommends that NASA probe the properties of black holes, which trigger bursts of x-rays and gamma radiation as they suck in matter and energy. According to Alan Bunner, a science program director in NASA's Office of Space Science, this supports the need for two proposed missions-the Gamma-Ray Large Area Space Telescope and the High Throughput X-ray Spectroscopy Mission.

The astronomy community hasn't had a chance yet to react to the NRC committee's assessment of its field. But NASA's Bunner, for one, is pleased with the process. We "needed priorities," he says, "and we needed them on a fairly short time scale."

[Subscribers to Science Online can link to a more comprehensive News story on the panel's recommendations.]