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Fifty Years of Astronomical Excellence

Fifty Years of Supporting Science

Established in 1950, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is the federal government's only agency dedicated to the support of education and fundamental research in all scientific and engineering disciplines. NSF's mission is to ensure that the United States maintains leadership in scientific and engineering disciplines, in scientific discovery and in the development of new technologies. NSF has achieved this mission repeatedly over the past 50 years.

In a series of six articles, we will highlight key scientific advances enabled by NSF support that have had beneficial impact on humankind.

This third article is a look at the agency's role in a broad issue that took on increasing significance as one decade followed another: Astronomy.

For more information on the NSF go to www.nsf.gov

This advertorial appears as part of a long-standing partnership between NSF and Discover Magazine. We encourage you to visit Discover Magazine at www.discover.com.

The National Science Foundation is dedicated to making America's scientists the most productive in the world. The means of accomplishing that goal for astronomy have changed significantly over the last five decades, mirroring the changes in astronomy itself.

The Gemini North Telescope; caption is below.
The Gemini North Telescope in Hawaii will
reveal unprecedented detail of the universe.
This view shows the Gemini North dome
and telescope, with shutters open.

Photo courtesy: Neelon Crawford/Polar Fine Arts, 1999.

In 1950 the workhorses of astronomy were optical telescopes. But the only large telescopes in existence were in the hands of private institutions and few astronomers had access to them. NSF responded by creating some of the finest observatories in the world, which gave access to all astronomers on the basis of scientific merit. Perhaps most famous of these is Kitt Peak in Arizona. However, it is far from alone. The Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile gives U.S. astronomers access to the southern sky. The kilometer-wide radio dish in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, and the Very Large Array (VLA) of radio telescopes in New Mexico are easily the most productive radio observatories in the world. NSF-funded solar telescopes permit the study the sun from its outer atmosphere to its core.

These facilities have fueled what many consider to be the golden age of astronomy. Now, they are about to be augmented by an entirely new class of telescopes with capacities unthinkable in 1950.

The Gemini Observatories, a collaboration between the NSF and six foreign countries, has delivered twin eight-meter telescopes, in Hawaii and Chile. Each instrument supports a precision-polished mirror thin enough to be flexed by computer-controlled actuators but large enough to serve as the foundation for a comfortably-sized house. With a new generation of adaptive optics, these telescopes will produce images in the infrared region of the spectrum that will rival the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope. And the instruments these telescopes will use to collect and analyze light are pushing digital imaging and data handling technology to their current limits and beyond.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) is easily the most exotic of the new generation of telescopes because it is not designed to detect radiation. Rather, it will search for gravitational waves. Albert Einstein predicted that the energy involved in spectacular events such as supernova explosions and the interaction of extraordinarily heavy objects known as neutron stars revolving about each other would create waves in the fabric of space itself. Physicists designed LIGO to detect such waves, and in the process provide clues to the behavior of matter under circumstances that no laboratory can duplicate.

More observatories are on the drawing board. A recent survey of U.S. astronomy by the National Research Council calls for an NSF-funded Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope that will trace the evolution of galaxies.

Observatories are essential to the story of NSF-funded astronomical research, but not the story itself. The extraordinary range of research conducted by NSF-sponsored individuals and small teams makes this the golden age of astronomy.

In 1950, astronomers had no way to discover whether planets existed beyond our solar system. In recent years, astronomers backed by NSF have detected more than 40 planets orbiting nearby stars. Although most of these are the size of Jupiter or Saturn, the hope of detecting an Earth-sized planet no longer remains exclusively the realm of science fiction.

Observational astronomers wondered if black holes really existed and, if so, whether it would ever be possible to detect them. Formed the remnants of collapsed stars, black holes are so dense that not even light can escape their force of gravity. Now, NSF-funded researchers have not only identified black holes, by measuring the gravitational influence it has on stars that orbit it, they have even found evidence for one at the center of the Milky Way galaxy. It is a true giant with a mass equal to 2.6 million times that of the sun.

In the late 1950s, military satellites detected intense, random flashes of radiation in the sky. Astronomers still understand little about these gamma ray bursts, that occur about once a day on average. But with NSF support, they have made the best measurements of a burst so far. They have concluded that the explosion of the gamma ray burst released more energy in its first 15 seconds, than the sun will over its entire lifetime; that it appears to be expanding at nearly the speed of light; and that it is located roughly seven billion light years from Earth.

In 1950 astronomers knew that the universe is expanding. Conflicting evidence made it unclear whether it would continue to expand forever or would eventually reverse direction and collapse in on itself. In one of the great results of twentieth century science, NSF-funded astronomers have shown both that the universe does not contain enough matter in the universe to slow the expansion, and that the rate of expansion actually increases with distance. Why? Nobody knows yet. But this is an observational result that goes to the very heart of cosmology.

The advances continue. NSF-funded astronomers working on two projects that used instruments aboard high-flying balloons recently obtained images of the infant universe at unprecedented detail. Their instruments detected radiation emitted soon after the Big Bang, measuring the smoothness and curvature of space, which indicates that the geometry of the universe is flat, not curved.

Never have astronomers had tools of such quality, precision and power. Never have they had more tantalizing research topics to explore. And never have more minds focused on such issues.

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Last Modified: Mar 28, '03