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10-year plan for space research

Artist's impression of a star with an accretion disc

Astronomers are on a quest to discover and explore the physical laws governing matter, space and time.

SIXTY YEARS OF BUILDING ROCKETS, walking on the Moon and exploring the outer reaches of space have taught us lots about life, the universe and everything.

But what should we study in the coming decades? Lots of strange stuff, says a new report that provides NASA with a blueprint for the next 10 years of fundamental physics research in space.

“When Einstein developed his theory of relativity, no one at the time knew exactly how it could be applied. Yet that basic, scientific discovery opened many doors for us, including the development of technology that led to Global Positioning Systems (GPS),” says Rob Duncan, University of Missouri Vice Chancellor for Research, and leader of the report team.

“Many trillion-dollar technologies are based on these ‘basic science’ discoveries, so it is vital that we continue to explore these scientific questions that, we hope, will continue to lead to technological advancement,” says Duncan.

“We must continue to develop knowledge out of our curiosity alone, since that often leads to great opportunities,” he adds. “If we stop exploring the unknown, then we will fail to discover things that may be of great importance to our economy in ways that may be difficult to predict.”

Two new quests

Duncan’s committee developed two overarching “quests” and four specific “thrusts” as part of the report, “Recapturing a Future for Space Exploration: Life and Physical Sciences Research for a New Era”.

The first quest is to discover and explore the physical laws governing matter, space and time.

Artist's impression of a black hole

NASA is being urged to study weird matter, quantum gases and other strange stuff.

The second quest is to discover and understand how complex systems are organised. For example, ferns grow with a distinct symmetry and structure to their leaves that are similar to the overall shape of the whole plant.

This is an example of “self-similarity” in nature, which could be explored in greater detail in space.

Thrusting ahead

The four specific thrusts that the committee recommended NASA explore in the coming decade are:

Soft Condensed Matter Physics and Complex Fluids. While some examples exist of this new class of materials, understanding the organising principles of these new materials, which are typically very strong but very light, could advance materials science dramatically on earth.

Precision Measurements of Fundamental Forces and Symmetries. This would help scientists determine what is not known about the composition and structure of the universe. For example, some cosmic rays have 100 billion times more energy than the highest energy particles ever produced in “atom smashers” on earth.

Quantum Gases. Understanding quantum gases can lead to a much better understanding of how particles fundamentally interact with each other. Examples of these materials include superconductors and superfluids. Superconductors are materials that conduct electricity with no resistance while superfluids are those fluids (such as helium at very low temperatures) that have no resistance to fluid flow.

Condensed Matter. As matter changes into different states, such as solid, liquid and gas, phase changes happen that are similar throughout nature. By studying these changes in space, scientists can alleviate the complication of gravity and better understand the physics effecting these changes.

“This is a fascinating time to be a scientist,” says Duncan. “As NASA moves forward and develops a new space mission, we hope that this report will help guide the scientific portion of space exploration.”

“The possibilities of discovery are endless.”

Adapted from information issued by the University of Missouri-Columbia.

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