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Alien worlds? Far-off galaxies? Study sets US space priorities.

The National Research Council's once-a-decade study, released Friday, proposes the top priorities for US space science during the coming decade. NASA uses it as a blueprint.

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In space, the top priority is an orbiting infrared telescope, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, also designed for large, repeated images of the sky high above Earth's atmosphere, which hinders infrared observations from Earth.

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In setting the research themes and picking the projects, "some very tough choices were made," says Roger Blandford, a Stanford University cosmologist who headed the committee.

Of the five decadal surveys, this is the first to try to rigorously estimate future science budgets, then weigh that against cost estimates for the projects they considered, as well as the level of technological development those projects still require, according to Neil deGrasse Tyson, who heads the Hayden Planetarium in New York and also served on the decadal committee.

"This may be the first decade where we have some hope that the [budget] targets estimated will be reached," he said. "In the previous decade, there was a lot of dreaming about: Wouldn't it be great if..."

A new realism

The LSST is a case in point. The LSST essentially swapped places with another major initiative – a giant segmented-mirror telescope – as the committee's top priority. The LSST is a smaller telescope than the two segmented-mirror candidates, the Thirty Meter Telescope and the Giant Magellan Telescope.

In looking at the three, the panel "was deeply impressed with the scientific potential" of the LSST and of the two segmented-mirror candidates, says Timothy Heckman, an astrophysicist at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a member of the decadal committee.

But "based on the judgment of the committee and the independent assessment we received" from the Aerospace Corporation – which also took part in the process of reorienting NASA's human spaceflight program – "LSST looked like it was ready to go," Dr. Heckman says.

The analysis showed that the project appeared to have no technological gotchas looming, and it matched well with the science themes the panel identified, he says.

Meanwhile, the committee recommended that the National Science Foundation take a 25 percent stake in one of the two the giant segmented-mirror telescope efforts.

That implies some intense politicking ahead as leaders from each try to convince the NSF that their project is the one to back.