When was our cosmic dawn? When did the dark ages preceding this end?” These are some of the pressing questions in astronomy. The answers will come from ground- and space-based telescopes operating in the infrared, x-ray, optical, and radio bands.
Blandford took the audience on a trip back in time to the beginning of the universe and through its evolution, reviewing the basics of cosmology, including the discovery of the cosmic microwave background by Penzias and Wilson and the discoveries by the Cosmic Background Explorer, the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, and the Planck observatory. He outlined the challenges facing astrophysicists in understanding the universe today: dark matter, dark energy, and understanding why the universe is so uniform.
He then asked, What lies outside our universe? He said some physicists posit that there are many universes, or “the multiverse,” and conclude that very special conditions are needed for a universe to last as long as ours and have the conditions for life to develop. “Then they turn the problem on its head” and conclude that most universes are “still born.” “But by our very existence, we are self-selecting the rare example that allows us to be.” This is called the anthropic principle: “Things were as they were because we are as we are…. It is a wonderful and yet very disturbing idea.”
Scientists have gained an enormous amount of knowledge in just a few decades, not centuries likes the Greeks and the Enlightenment, thanks in large part to NASA’s ongoing outstanding success in launching, operating and supporting its fleet of scientific discovery machines. “The means are at hand to complete the story, to understand our origins, and know our cosmic fate,” Blandford said, adding, “I hope that we have the will to match this quest.”
Jean-Pierre Swings, honorary professor at the Université de Liège (Belgium) and chair of the European Space Sciences Committee of the European Science Foundation, focused on Europe’s contribution to answering the type of questions raised by Blandford. He reviewed the many European spacecraft that have been launched and cooperative programs with other (non-ESA) countries (Figure 3). The European Space Agency (ESA) contributed 15 percent to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, for example, and built the Huygens probe that landed on Saturn’s moon Titan as part of the NASA/ESA Cassini-Huygens mission.
ESA also participates in the International Space Station (ISS), and one has to ask about the science being done there in addition to showing pretty pictures of astronauts and modules. Scientific American and the European Science Foundation have each published reviews of the science that is being performed and planned and “there is some quite good stuff being done there.”
Some scientists believed that ground-based radio astronomy would answer all the questions, but that is “completely wrong.” Optical observations also are needed, and ground- and space-based researchers need to work together. Countries also need to work together and he views the future as “coopetition”—a combination of cooperation, competition, and collaboration.
Swings described ESA’s mechanism for determining scientific priorities. The United States uses the decadal survey process, while ESA has the “Cosmic Vision” program, which involves a lot of international cooperation and collaboration. That program ends in 2025, however, and Swings wondered aloud what would come after that. He stressed that a way must be found to attract new scientists and engineers and to maintain expert instrumentation teams.
As for communicating with the public, he asked what we can do besides “awe and beauty.” He noted that in Europe there is no single “public” because so many countries are involved with different interests. He is from Belgium, and a Belgian astronaut has commanded the ISS, so in his country there is more public interest in the ISS itself than in science. He concluded by saying that he believes “outreach and communication is better” in the United States. He asked if it is only a matter of more money, and he hopes not.