Cornell faculty contribute to Astro2020 decadal survey

The newly released “Pathways to Discovery in Astronomy and Astrophysics for the 2020s,a decadal survey from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, identifies scientific priorities, opportunities and funding recommendations for the next 10 years of astronomy and astrophysics.

Numerous faculty from the Department of Astronomy in the College of Arts and Sciences participated in the survey: Nikole Lewis, assistant professor and deputy director of the Carl Sagan Institute; Gordon Stacey, Ph.D. ’85, professor of astronomy; Martha Haynes, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy; and Britney Schmidt, associate professor of astronomy and of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences in the College of Engineering.

Lisa Kaltenegger, associate professor of astronomy and director of the Carl Sagan Institute and Dmitry Savransky, associate professor of astronomy and of engineering (Engineering), served as reviewers for the decadal survey.

“The priorities set forth in the Astro2020 decadal directly address the most important scientific questions astronomy can answer,” said Jonathan Lunine, the David C. Duncan Professor in the Physical Sciences and chair of the Department of Astronomy. “How did everything begin? What is the nature of space itself? Is there life elsewhere?

Cornell has “vigorous ongoing activities that are directly related to the highest priority activities called out by the decadal report,” Stacey said.

One such priority is the joint NSF-DOE program for the next generation cosmic microwave background experiment. Haynes noted that studies of the cosmic microwave background are already a cornerstone of the surveys planned for the Fred Young Submillimeter Telescope, centerpiece of the CCAT-Prime international project led by Cornell, which is scheduled for first light in 2024.

The Astro2020 report also emphasizes the power of using pulsar timing to investigate fundamental physics and astrophysics in a comprehensive program of multi-messenger astronomy.

“Pulsar timing capabilities are critical for tackling a number of high-priority science questions, including the cosmological implications of gravitational waves,” said James Cordes, the George Feldstein Professor of Astronomy.

Cornell is a co-PI institution for the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav), the global leader in the use of pulsars for gravitational wave detection.

The Astro2020 report has a strong focus on building a workforce that is diverse, inclusive and equitable. This is the first decadal survey with a panel dedicated to this topic, said Haynes, who served on the panel.

“The report recognizes the demonstrated increase in innovation that a diverse community brings to the research enterprise and proposes specific steps that the agencies can take towards increasing diversity, equity and sustainability,” said Haynes.

Cornell’s Department of Astronomy is part of this national effort, noted Lunine, through the hiring of diverse faculty, postdoctoral scholars and research scientists, focused training for faculty, staff and students in combatting implicit and explicit bias, and active discussion of both the tools for DEI and the obstacles that continue to challenge our goals in this arena.

“It was really an honor to be able to serve on one of the panels that helped to shape the recommendations from the Astro2020 decadal survey,” Lewis said. “I am looking forward to seeing how the exoplanet field evolves as we work toward the report’s goals.”

The decadal study – undertaken by the Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics 2020 (Astro2020) Steering Committee – was sponsored by NASA, National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Air Force.

Read more about Cornell’s contributions to the Astro2020 survey on the College of Arts and Sciences’ website.

Linda B. Glaser is news and media relations manager for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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