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Remarks

Photo of Dr. France A. Córdova
Photo by NSF/Stephen Voss

Dr. France A. Córdova
Director
National Science Foundation
Biography

Before the
American Astronomical Society
Kissimmee, Florida

January 5, 2016

 

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

[Slide #1: Title slide: A New Universe of Discoveries ]
Thank you for that warm introduction, and may I say what a pleasure it is to speak to you today.

The American Astronomical Society is a vital part of our nation’s scientific community, and let me assure you that NSF is committed to working with you -- and your institutions -- in continuing to champion scientific research in astronomy, planetary science, heliophysics, and related fields.

I am honored to represent the National Science Foundation -- the premier U.S. research agency for basic science and engineering, and one of the world’s leading institutions for astronomy.

The title I have given my presentation today -- "A New Universe of Discoveries" -- acknowledges the convergence of advances in astronomical instruments, computational capabilities and talented practitioners. This convergence is creating an extraordinary new environment for making fundamental discoveries in astronomy, ranging from the nature of exoplanets to understanding the evolution of solar systems and galaxies.

NSF plays a critical role in supporting, stimulating and shaping these advances. The work that NSF does is a sacred trust that every generation of Americans makes to those of the next generation, that we will build on the body of knowledge we inherit and continue to push forward the frontiers of science. We never lose sight of NSF's obligation to "explore the unexplored" and inspire all of humanity with the wonders of discovery.

[Slide #2: ] (Image unavailable)

Over the centuries, science and astronomy have been partners in the enlightenment of humanity.

You may have visited the Great Hall of the National Academies of Science building in Washington, DC. Perhaps you have noticed the magnificent mural by Albert Herter on the ceiling of the Great Hall.

In the mural, Prometheus, aided by Athena -- the goddess of knowledge -- steals the divine fire from the sun god Helios as he drives his chariot across the heavens, to bring the flame of knowledge to humanity.

In a similar sense, astronomy brings to humanity the great gift of seeing and understanding where our Earth -- the "pale blue dot" in Carl Sagan's words -- fits into the Universe.

We may be a tiny part of that vast cosmos, but our imaginations are ambitious enough to want to understand all of it. Astronomy gives us the tools and insights to be able to do that, and our own imagination gives us the rest.

[Slide #3: Big Data in Astronomy]

One significant new challenge for all sciences -- and especially astronomy -- is the enormous increase in raw research data resulting from vastly increased instrument and computing capabilities – what we call "Big Data."

NSF helped nurture the whole infrastructure of Big Data -- by funding the development of computer science departments at universities starting more than four decades ago, and also funding continuing research into ever-more-powerful supercomputers.

For example, this slide is from Solar Superstorms, an ultra-high resolution demonstration that takes viewers into the magnetic fields and super-hot plasma surrounding the sun as it produces dramatic flares, violent solar tornadoes, and coronal mass ejections.

This groundbreaking scientific visualization is based on computations from the NSF-supported supercomputing initiative, Blue Waters, at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois.

This is only a hint of the advances Big Data will make possible in years ahead. Many of you are engaged in exploiting the science that Big Data can yield.

[Slide #4: International Partnerships | Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array ]

While NSF is widely recognized as our Nation's premier basic scientific research agency, we are finding that international partnerships can be valuable mechanisms to accelerate the progress of science.

For example, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array -- or ALMA -- an array of 66 telescopes that has received more than $1 billion in investments from a broad international coalition including Europe, East Asia -- led by Japan -- and Chile, with North American funding, primarily from NSF.

ALMA is providing a testing ground for theories of star birth and stellar evolution, and solar system and galaxy formation.

Shown on the left is a remarkable ALMA image of the young star HL Tau and its protoplanetary disk, revealing multiple rings and gaps that herald the presence of emerging planets as they sweep their orbits clear of dust and gas.

On the right, ALMA astronomers have discovered a dim, red dwarf star -- TVLM 513-46546, located about 35 light-years from Earth in the constellation Boötes -- that is generating a surprisingly powerful magnetic field, one that rivals the most intense magnetic regions of our own sun.

The star's extraordinary magnetic field is potentially associated with a constant flurry of solar-flare-like eruptions.

What's more, the emissions from this star are 10,000 times brighter than what our own Sun produces, even though it has less than one-tenth of the sun's mass. The fact that ALMA detected this emission in a brief 4-hour observation suggests that the red dwarf may be continuously active. This has important implications for the search for habitable planets outside the Solar System.

Astronomers will study similar stars in the future to determine whether this one is an oddball or an example of an entire class of stormy stars.

[Slide #5: Gemini South (Chile) ]

Another significant international partnership involves the Gemini team of twin 8.1-meter optical/infrared telescopes on Cerro Pachón in Chile -- shown here -- and Gemini North on Maunakea in Hawaii.

Partners in the International Gemini Observatory include the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Argentina and Chile, as well as the University of Hawaii as the host of the northern site. Korea is also on the verge of becoming a new partner.

Gemini's capabilities -- full-sky coverage, rapid response to transients, agile scheduling, and specialized optics -- enabled astronomers to engage in a range of unique, world-leading science.

Gemini has recently commissioned a new camera that directly images planets around other stars. The Gemini Planet Imager -- or GPI -- simultaneously takes a series of images across a range of wavelengths providing color information.

This spectral data can be used by researchers to infer the mass, size, and temperature of each planet. By using adaptive optics and a coronagraphic mask, GPI can image planets that are a million times fainter than their host star.

GPI is unique in being arguably the most powerful instrument available to astronomers to date for directly imaging extra-solar planets. It was developed by an international team led by Stanford’s Bruce Macintosh and Berkeley’s James Graham.

In August 2015, the team announced a major discovery: a young Jupiter-like exoplanet designated 51 Eridani b. It is one of the first exoplanets to be discovered as part of the GPI Exoplanet Survey (GPIES) which will target 600 stars over the next three years.

[Slide #6: Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) ]

Another cutting-edge, NSF-supported observatory is the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope, now under construction in Haleakala on Maui. This next-generation solar telescope represents a collaboration of 22 institutions, reflecting a broad segment of the solar physics community.

At anticipated completion in 2019, DKIST will be the world's premier solar telescope. It will be poised to unlock the mysteries of the sun's three-dimensional magnetic field from the photosphere to the corona. Solar magnetic fields drive the phenomena collectively known as space weather, which can significantly impact life on Earth.

The inset shows a computer simulation of what one of the DKIST instruments will be able to observe when the telescope comes on line. It shows the detailed structure and polarization signatures of a sunspot in three dimensions, allowing solar physicists to gain new insights into magnetic phenomena generated at the solar surface.

With our increased understanding of the sun resulting from DKIST's observations, our Nation should be better prepared to help protect vital space-based assets -- such as communications and weather satellites -- and ground-based assets like electric power grids and other vital infrastructure.

NSF has played a significant role in the development of the recently released National Space Weather Strategy. And we expect DKIST to be a major contributor to research that will one day lead to more accurate predictions of solar storms.

[Slide #7: Large Synoptic Survey Telescope ]

As this audience is well aware, the top recommendation of the 2010 National Academy of Sciences decadal survey of astronomy was the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope -- LSST -- which is now under construction on Cerro Pachón in Chile.

Last April, I participated in the symbolic "first stone ceremony" to launch LSST construction, with the President of Chile, as shown in the bottom right photo.

LSST will be a wide-field "survey" telescope that photographs the entire available sky every few nights.

It will have the largest digital camera ever constructed, with a large-aperture, wide-field optical imager capable of viewing light from the near ultraviolet to near infrared wavelengths.

The camera is designed to provide a 3.5-degree field of view, with its 10 µm pixels capable of 0.2 arcsecond sampling for optimized pixel sensitivity vs pixel resolution.

The camera will produce data of extremely high quality with minimal downtime and maintenance, and advanced computers will gather and analyze the millions of gigabytes of data LSST will generate each year.

To learn more about this remarkable telescope, let me refer you to the recent National Research Council report titled "Optimizing the U.S. Ground-Based Optical and Infrared Astronomy System," authored by an all-star team led by Vassar's Debra Elmegreen.

And let me note that another transformative aspect of LSST's operations will be an innovative Citizen Science program involving people of all ages and vocations, making discovery opportunities available to all.

This is just one example of NSF's commitment to engaging the public in the thrill of discovery and increasing public understanding of and appreciation for scientific research.

[Slide #8: IceCube Neutrino Observatory ]

Far from us lies NSF's IceCube Neutrino Observatory at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica. IceCube is the world’s largest neutrino detector, and is among the most ambitious scientific construction projects ever attempted. It searches for neutrinos from the most violent astrophysical sources.

The IceCube Neutrino Observatory was built with an NSF Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction award, with assistance from partner funding agencies around the world.

A team of researchers with the IceCube Collaboration -- an international scientific group headquartered at the Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison -- announced earlier this year a new observation of high-energy neutrinos, confirming they found particles from beyond our solar system—and beyond our galaxy.

In the lower right image is a representation of the highest-energy neutrino observed by IceCube, with an estimated energy of 2.2 PeV. After two earlier neutrinos were nick-named "Bert" and "Ernie," IceCube physicists called this event "Big Bird."

Not far from IceCube is the 280-ton South Pole Telescope -- not pictured here -- a 10-meter radio telescope that takes advantage of the dry air and altitude at NSF's Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station to make long-duration observations.

In late 2011, SPT completed a scan of 2,500-square degrees of night and observed hundreds of previously unseen galaxy clusters, including the most massive ever detected. Galaxy clusters, thanks to the pull of gravity and aided by dark matter, are the largest structures to have evolved in the cosmos.

The SPT hunts for these galaxy clusters using the Sunyaev-Zel'dovich (SZ) effect -- a small distortion in the cosmic microwave background (CMB), a "glow" left over from the Big Bang some 14 billion years ago.

We hope to trace out how many large-mass clusters have formed throughout different periods in the history of the Universe. This is one way that we can learn more about the role that dark energy has played in the formation of the Universe.

John Carlstrom -- the University of Chicago astrophysicist who led the design of SPT and is a certified MacArthur "genius" -- would have been with us today, but I understand he's on his way to the South Pole to tend to SPT's maintenance and upgrade.

Let me also note that NSF's Division of Polar Programs manages the U.S. Antarctic Program, through which it coordinates all U.S. research on the southernmost continent and in the Southern Ocean and provides the logistical support for that science -- including, of course, the extraordinary task of managing these massive observatories in the most challenging environment on Earth. I have been pleased to visit NSF's science facilities and field stations during several visits to Antarctica. On my visit in December 2014, I was accompanied by 10 U.S. Congressmen and their staffs.

[Slide #9: High-Altitude Water Cherenkov Observatory (HAWC) ]

Another breakthrough astronomical observatory funded by NSF -- with international collaboration -- is the High Altitude Water Cherenkov -- or HAWC -- gamma ray observatory near Puebla, Mexico.

In March, I attended the inauguration of HAWC, which represents a unique partnership between the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, and CONACYT -- Mexico's National Council of Science and Technology.

HAWC will perform the deepest uniform sky survey at the highest gamma-ray energies to study the most extreme environments in the Universe.

HAWC will monitor approximately two-thirds of the sky every 24 hours with unprecedented sensitivity to the highest energy gamma rays. It will complement the operations of NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and the VERITAS gamma ray Observatory.

It will also be part of the growing field of "multi-messenger astrophysics" that includes cosmic ray observatories, IceCube and the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory -- or Advanced LIGO. In all of these, NSF is exploring the most fundamental of questions about the Universe.

The inset is the sky map that shows the survey aspect of HAWC, including two gray areas that are not visible from the HAWC location.

[Slide #10: Director's Priority: Greater diversity in astronomy through inclusion ]

This leads to what I have called the "Director's Priority" -- promoting greater diversity and inclusion in all sciences through an NSF-wide program known as INCLUDES.

INCLUDES is an integrated, national initiative to increase the preparation, participation, advancement, and potential contributions of those who have been traditionally underserved and/or underrepresented in STEM education and the STEM workforce.

It will build on and amplify NSF's current portfolio in broadening participation, and will make special outreach efforts in research and education and Big Data analysis, with other government agencies, business and industry.

INCLUDES is about adopting special approaches -- such as system engineering approaches or collective impact approaches, and leveraging entities like the internet and museums that reach millions -- to scale up the more localized engagement and outreach efforts we see in abundance, but which have only local impact.

We hope that by adopting new approaches to the challenge of inclusion we can increase more rapidly, and retain more effectively, those who have been left out of science, or dropped out of science.

INCLUDES will enlarge the portfolio of the science and engineering centers NSF funds, its EPSCOR program, and eventually all of the major programs NSF invests in.

It will be a goal, together with research and science education, that is a value of NSF. Because science is too wonderful for it to be exclusive, and too important to leave anyone out.

We have many examples of how INCLUDES is making a difference in NSF-funded programs. On the far left above, a group of American undergraduates interact with their Chilean colleagues at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in La Serena, Chile. They are being funded by the NSF's Research Experiences for Undergraduates program.

On the far right, Georgia Tech astronomer Lujendra Ojha gives a TED talk in Mumbai on the discovery of brines on Mars. His research has been supported by NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

[Slide #11: Title slide: A New Universe of Discoveries ]

As I close, let me underscore that NSF seeks to enable discoveries and breakthroughs by funding fundamental, transformative scientific research.

NSF is committed to working with you -- and your institutions -- in continuing to champion scientific research in all areas of astronomy.

NSF's contributions are vital because our support of basic research and highly capable people creates knowledge that transforms our nation's future. The Foundation is a primary driver of the U.S. economy; our work helps to enhance our health, our well-being, and our national security; and our investments advance the knowledge needed to sustain our Nation's global leadership.

Let me again thank the American Astronomical Society for the opportunity to be with you today. I wish you all a very productive meeting.

 

 

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