Astronomers Compose "To Do" List

Astronomy is expensive and high-tech. And so to prioritize which big-ticket tools should be funded in the next decade, astronomers have come up with a wish list. The National Research Council (NRC) study urges the government to spend $4.7 billion through 2010 on a new generation of ground- and space-based observatories.

If the past is any guide, the exercise should pay off handsomely. A previous study in 1991 recommended $4 billion worth of initiatives, most of which have either been built or are under construction. The secret, say science managers, is to select a limited number of priorities. "This is not just a typical 'Please send money' report," says William Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering and NRC vice chair. "This represents tough choices."

The NRC panel, led by Christopher McKee, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley, and Princeton University astronomer Joseph Taylor, chose 11 initiatives for its decadal blueprint. Number one is the Next Generation Space Telescope, a proposed $1.3 billion observatory with a mirror nearly four times as large as that of the Hubble Space Telescope. But for the most part, the panel urges NASA to place greater emphasis on medium-sized missions, the somewhat less glamorous projects that "often slip through the cracks," says Blair Savage, an astronomer at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The only small initiative the panel endorsed is a plan to create a National Virtual Observatory to store vast amounts of astronomical data and make them accessible to researchers.

The chosen projects closely match the intentions of NASA and the National Science Foundation, agency officials say. "I'm delighted with this report--it's fantastic," says Anne Kinney, science chief of NASA's origins program, which oversees the $1.7 billion Terrestrial Planet Finder. This craft, ranked third among the report's space-based missions, is a personal favorite of NASA Administrator Dan Goldin.