FM13: Global Coordination of International Astrophysics and Heliophysics Activities from Space and Ground

Alma at Night

The ALMA Observatory, 5,000 meters above sea level on Chile’s Chajnantor Plateau, is the world’s most powerful millimetre/submillimetre array. No single country could have constructed such a facility. ALMA is a partnership between the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), and Japan’s National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) in collaboration with the Republic of Chile. (Carlos Padilla / AUI / NRAO)

International collaboration has always been an important part of research in astronomy, astrophysics, and heliophysics. Over the past two decades, the increasing complexity and cost of new facilities, the constraints on funding available from within individual countries and the rapidly increasing volume of data produced by newer facilities have made international collaboration on large ground- and space-based facilities essential for the advancement of science.

As international cooperation becomes commonplace, data-sharing policies have become ever more important. All IAU members have a stake in the policy decisions made by nations and various scientific consortiums concerning data access and international collaborations. IAU Focus Meeting 13 aims to provide a forum to discuss how to improve the coordination of global strategic planning in astronomy, astrophysics and heliophysics in order to maximise the scientific return from research facilities.

As astronomical projects grow larger, international collaboration has become essential for both ground- and space-based astronomy and heliophysics. Major observatories such as ALMA, Hubble, SOHO, Planck, and Herschel are international projects with many partners making important technical, scientific and financial contributions.

Countries are looking for ways to leverage precious resources by getting involved in international collaborative efforts, including those that don’t already have established space programmes. However, with a patchwork of national policies concerning data and facility access, as well as little in the way of international lessons learned or expectations for involvement in large-scale observatory projects, it is difficult to gauge the true value of involvement at the outset. At present, the U.S., Europe, Japan, and China all conduct their own independent long-term planning processes. In the United States, the planning is done primarily through the decadal survey process. ESA plans its major long-term projects through the L2/L3/L4/L5 process. Japan has its own national planning process that spans much of its research programme.

The 2010 U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey, New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics, states:

An important characteristic of contemporary astronomy, and therefore of this survey, is that most research is highly collaborative, involving international, interagency, private, and state partnerships. This feature has expanded the scope of what is possible but also makes assessment and prioritization more complicated. (p. xvi).

Similarly, the 2012 U.S. NAS heliophysics decadal survey, Solar and Space Physics: A Science for a Technological Society, states:

A comprehensive investigation in solar and space physics cannot take place in isolation but should be part of an international effort, with different countries able to bring to bear unique geographic advantages, observing platforms, and expertise. (p. 122)

…while participation in international solar and space research projects could be accomplished through numerous individual, bilateral initiatives and agreements, the overall impact would be increased by coordinated agency involvement. (p. 123)

How do we coordinate such international planning efforts? How should we share access to facilities built by large international collaborations and data produced by them? Concerning the latter question, the huge volume of data produced by forthcoming observatories necessitates changes to how research is conducted in astrophysics and heliophysics; the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST), for example, will collect 3.65 petabytes in its first year of science operations, while the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) will produce 30 terabytes of data every night (about 11 petabytes/year).

HST in orbit

Like most large orbiting observatories, the Hubble Space Telescope was made possible through international collaboration, in this case between the U.S., Europe and Canada. Astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis snapped this view in May 2009 during the final Hubble servicing mission. (NASA)

The potential benefit of enhanced international coordination is high. Much can be learned in astrophysics by adopting a multi-pronged approach, in which ground- and space-based facilities look at the same target at different wavelengths, on different timescales and with different technologies. Such an approach requires more resources than a single nation can reasonably provide. Heliophysics has the added issue of coordinating truly global ground-based systems and space missions in various regions of the Sun-Earth system. In this context, Earth is an additional spacecraft embedded in its own space plasma environment. For the first time in history, we are capable of looking at a complicated, coupled space system in its entirety — from the Sun, through its heliosphere, magnetosphere, ionosphere and atmosphere, down to the biosphere, in which we try to survive climate change. To study and understand the system around us is the ultimate benchmark for understanding other star-planet systems.

Significant progress towards combining international ground- and space-based assets has been made by, for example, the multi-spacecraft Cluster and THEMIS coordinations with ground-based facilities. Additional, truly global instrument networks have been developed by the community, through more-or-less grassroots activities and, in recent years, through the International Living with a Star programme at the agency level. Nevertheless, we still have major gaps in our coverage and understanding of the Sun-Earth system.

Focus Meeting 13 includes six focussed panels. Each panelist will make initial remarks, followed by an engaged discussion led by the moderator and involving both the panelists and the audience. Here are the six topics we’ll explore:

  • Large International Space Projects: From Black Holes to Cosmology;
  • Large International Space Projects: Opportunities for Studying Exoplanets, Planet and Star Formation;
  • Global Coordination of Ground-based Astronomy;
  • Engagement of Countries with Emerging Astronomical Communities in International Efforts and Governance of International Projects;
  • International Efforts in Heliophysics;
  • Gravitational Waves and Transient Science.

Panelists include Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate; Günther Hasinger, ESA’s Director of Science; Ewine F. van Dishoeck, recipient of the 2018 Kavli Prize in Astrophysics and incoming IAU President; Silvia Torres-Peimbert, outgoing IAU President; and many other luminaries in ground- and space-based astronomy, astrophysics, and heliophysics from all over the world — as you’d expect at an IAU General Assembly!

DAVID SPERGEL is Charles Young Professor of Astronomy at Princeton University and Director of the Flatiron Institute’s Center for Computational Astrophysics. He co-chairs the WFIRST Formulation Science Working Group and has chaired the National Academy of Sciences’ Space Studies Board.