Strategic Plan

Portion of the sky taken by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey Telescope
Portion of the sky taken by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey Telescope

The Astronomy Department has always had a diverse set of research interests. Even so there are three unifying themes that guide our future planning, all of which play to our traditional strengths:

  • Cosmology: the origin and evolution of space, time, mass, and the large-scale forces that affect their evolution.
  • Galactic Evolution: how the chaotic debris of the Big Bang developed into the highly organized system of galaxies and clusters that characterize the mass in the Universe today.
  • Planets and Life: how icy, dusty debris (comets) is the pre-solar neighborhood collected to form the Sun, the ordered planetary system, and ultimately, the formation of life on Earth and perhaps elsewhere in the Solar System.

Many of the strategic goals that we set for ourselves in 1999 have been accomplished. The faculty met at two retreats in 2002 to develop a revised strategic plan for the next decade. We are presently preparing for a major fundraising effort in close collaboration with the college of Arts & Sciences in order to enhance all of our programs and to realize our strategic objectives.

Scientific Foundations of Astronomy’s Strategic Plan

There are two large and coordinated central foci, or pillars, of the strategic plan that represent exciting (and costly) investments that, if funded even in part, will profoundly enhance each of our programmatic themes at a critical time as a new generation of faculty are coming on board. One pillar is for new facilities, i.e., telescopes and data processing tools. The other pillar is a center of excellence in theoretical astrophysics. Both pillars will provide powerful strategic and tactical tools for research, undergraduate and graduate education, and recruiting tools for future faculty and graduate students in a highly competitive market.

The proposed observational facilities will, for the first time, systematically probe changes in the sky, from the flash of a supernova at the visible edge of the Universe to the location of pristine clods of dusty ice (the material from which planets originally formed) in orbits beyond Neptune and Pluto. We will join a national collaboration to survey the sky at least weekly. Our contribution will be the design of a pipeline that can assimilate vast quantities of data (1000 billion bytes per night) and identify “events” for immediate followup observations on larger telescopes elsewhere. The pipeline will be a challenge that is likely to involve interdisciplinary work with the departments of Statistics, Applied Math, Computer Science, and possibly the Microsoft database management group with whom we have collaborated previously. Furthermore U.W. will extend its collaborations with partner universities and national centers of excellence such as LIGO in Hanford and nationally supported observatories throughout the world.

The results of the surveys and events will reach to unprecedented levels of celestial detail, much like the mapping expeditions of Cook, Vancouver, Lewis and Clark probed the western half of North America. Both observers and theoreticians will be the key to transforming the torrent of survey data into discovery science. Coupled with closely coordinated theoretical work in black hole and dark matter astrophysics and primitive life formation, research excellence in cosmology, galaxy formation, solar system origins, and astrobiology will multiply. The proposed center for theoretical astrophysics will merge traditional astronomy with particle astrophysics, planetary geology, molecular biology, and relativistic gravitation, providing our students with outstanding opportunities for cross-disciplinary research. The synergy and complementarity of the observational and theoretical enterprises are analogous to composer and orchestra.

The strategic plan will be realized in several steps. The initial steps are the formation of the sky survey pipeline group, the initial use of the pipeline on an existing sky survey telescope, and the establishment of a nucleus of the center for theoretical astrophysics. Gifts and endowments are essential for launching these efforts. Grant activity will help to sustain and enlarge both groups of key people as we hit our stride. Once the pipeline enters full production, activity on the pipeline will give way to observational programs utilizing modest telescopes for synoptic monitoring and large telescopes for exceptionally rare and faint events. (Access will be procured on existing facilities.) Ultimately the annual investment in the U.W. Astronomy Department will approximately double.

The key questions that we intend to address with these observations are:

  • What is the nature of dark energy that is driving the accelerated expansion of the Universe?
  • How are galaxies and clusters of galaxies bound together by the gravity of dark matter?
  • How did our parent galaxy, the Milky Way, form and settle into its present configuration?
  • How can we use the gamma-ray bursts from merging black holes and neutron stars to test theories of gravity, ultradense dense states of matter, and probes of cosmological distances?
  • Can we use gravitational microlensing to detect Earth-like planets around new and old stars and, then, use spectroscopy to infer the properties of their atmospheres?
  • Can we determine the chemical and physical nature of the materials from which planets and life formed early in the history of the Solar System?
  • What is the present threat to the Earth of objects whose paths cut across the Earth’s orbit?

Realizing Astronomy’s Strategic Plan

The three themes of science defined above, the array of national instruments being planned for the next decade, and a clear sense of our own research opportunities and educational priorities have been carefully considered by our faculty to synthesize an effective and ambitious strategic plan for our future. The plan consists of observational and theoretical “pillars”. The plans are ambitious, so realizing them will take time, effort, planning, substantial intellectual resources, and funding. In this section we sketch the path forward with emphasis on the staged development of each pillar.

The observational plan and the Center for Time Domain Astronomy: The first, central, and most technically challenging component is to collaborate with selected peer institutions to two specific ends: to develop the next-generation survey telescope that will both repeatedly chart the sky and, nearly simultaneously, to identify unpredictable target-of-opportunity events while there is still time to monitor them. An optimized survey telescope and an “event discovery software pipeline” connected to it that expediently processes the torrent of imaging data — a terabyte per night — are key initial aspects of this component.

The long-lead-time items are the survey telescope and the data pipeline. Although we have skills in both areas, we lead the nation in real-time high-volume data processing. So our short-term strategy is to enter a national collaboration in which other institutions that take the lead in the observing hardware and we lead the pipeline effort as our in-kind contribution in the partnership. We believe that this is cost effective, and it makes best use of our skills and resources. At first we will utilize the existing SDSS 2.5-m telescope in which we are already a major partner in order to conduct prototype – but still very challenging and viable – scientific programs searching for threatening near-Earth asteroids and modestly bright cosmological supernovae. These projects fully exercise the pipeline as it develops. The existing 3.5-m telescope at Apache Point Observatory (APO) in which we have a 31% investment (100 nights per year) will be the critical followup facility for the targets of opportunity.

Several years later (2006-7) we will attach the working pipeline to a larger and much faster survey telescope of approximately 6 meters in diameter in which the pipeline is our contribution to the partnership. This is when the synoptic program plumbs new faintness limits. At this point it becomes important to gain access to a large followup telescope that can collect light at ten times the rate of the 3.5-m telescope at APO. This access will consist of a 10% share (approximately) on an existing, fully successful and well-instrumented telescope, such as the ten-meter Keck Telescope in Hawai’i, for which the capital and operation costs are readily predictable. At the same time we will ramp down the work on the pipeline and go into a research production mode of operation. The transition from technical to production work would be complete about three years after the large survey and patrol telescope comes into operation. By then an endowment for the support for the ongoing faculty and students who will design and implement the system and become its cutting-edge users will be needed before the user community of the facility can generate substantial grant funding and support.

The Center for Time Domain Astronomy will be headed by Prof. Christopher Stubbs with strong support from Profs. Suzanne Hawley and Zeljko Ivezic. The formation of the Center awaits formal U.W. involvement in a fully funded survey telescope project. As of this writing (January 2003) substantial progress has been made to assemble a group of top U.S. institutions and private foundations to push forward with the design and budget for an 8-meter class survey telescope known as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (“LSST”). Thanks to various people at U.W., particularly Associate Provost Craig Hogan, the official announcement of the start of the project was released on 24 April 2003.

Design Concept for the 8.4-meter Large Synoptic Survey Telescope

The Center for Astrophysical Theory: The Department’s closely-knit team of faculty, postdoctoral and student theoreticians and interpreters will take the distant and larger view of new observational results by combining them with the most modern models and physical concepts, and be deeply engaged in the interpretation of the results. More than this, the theory group will be encouraged to help us shape and structure future observational programs. Membership and affiliation with the theory group will spread beyond the Astronomy Department to Physics. With sufficient support they will maintain an active visitor and seminar/meeting program. The potential rewards are enormous, and the cost of an enabling endowment is modest. We would be most pleased to work with potential donors to shape the main themes of the theory group.

This Center will nucleate around a leading figure attracted to UW by our existing faculty and students, research programs, commitment to expansion, the opportunities for collaboration within the University and the major technology centers in the Puget Sound region, and an endowment that, over the course of ten years, will add an array of faculty, postdoc, and graduate student positions for the Center. The growth of the Center will be deliberate since the supply of the very best talent is really more of a trickle than a torrent. Its growth and grant support will benefit from the international prestige generated by a steady stream of the best young postdocs, visiting senior faculty, and ongoing meetings — a tactical model used very successfully by the Institute for Nuclear Theory in this building.

The Center for Astrophysical Theory will be led by Prof. Thomas R Quinn with strong support from Prof. Eric Agol. The nucleus of this Center is already in place: Prof. Quinn has assembled a group of two postdocs and five graduate students who are supported from both private donations and research grants.

Donations can profoundly broaden the research focus of the Astronomy Department through the establishment of the centers above or others of mutual interest to donors and the Department. We urge benefactors to contact the Chair of the Department for discussions. Donations in any amount can be accepted now; however, they can’t be spent until sufficient funds for hiring key people on a long-term basis are assured.

Centers of Excellence Fund

We urge donors to contact us before making substantial contributions so that we may direct your funds appropriately.