In the first decade of the new millennium, we are poised to take a giant step forward in understanding the universe and our place within it. The decade of the 1990s saw an enormous number of exciting discoveries in astronomy and astrophysics. For example, humanity’s centurieslong quest for evidence of the existence of planets around other stars resulted in the discovery of extrasolar planets, and the number of planets known continues to grow. Astronomers peered far back in time, to only a few hundred thousand years after the Big Bang, and found the seeds from which all galaxies, such as our own Milky Way, were formed. At the end of the decade came evidence for a new form of energy that may pervade the universe. Nearby galaxies were found to harbor extremely massive black holes in their centers. Distant galaxies were discovered near the edge of the visible universe. In our own solar system, the discovery of Kuiper Belt objects—some of which lie beyond the orbit of Pluto—opens a new window onto the history of the solar system. This report presents a comprehensive and prioritized plan for the new decade that builds on these and other discoveries to pursue the goal of understanding the universe, a goal that unites astronomers and astrophysicists with scientists from many other disciplines.
The Astronomy and Astrophysics Survey Committee was charged with surveying both ground- and space-based astronomy and recommending priorities for new initiatives in the decade 2000 to 2010. In addition, the committee was asked to consider the effective implementation of both the proposed initiatives and the existing programs. The committee’s charge excludes in situ studies of Earth and the planets, which are covered by other National Research Council committees: the Committee on Planetary and Lunar Exploration and the Committee on Solar and Space Physics. To carry out its mandate, the committee established nine panels with more than 100 distinguished members of the astronomical community. Broad input was sought through the panels, in forums held by the American Astronomical Society, and in meetings with representatives of the international astronomical community. The committee’s recommendations build on those of four previous decadal surveys (NRC, 1964, 1972, 1982, 1991), in particular the report of the 1991 Astronomy and Astrophysics Survey Committee, The Decade of Discovery in Astronomy and Astrophysics (referred to in this report as the 1991 survey; also known as the Bahcall report).