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NASA Science Strategic Roadmap: Universe Exploration: From the Big Bang to Life

Status Report From: NASA HQ
Posted: Thursday, May 26, 2005

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NASA Science Strategic Roadmap: Universe Exploration: From the Big Bang to Life

Full Document (PDF)

1. Agency Objective Statement: Explore the universe to understand its origin, structure, evolution, and destiny.

2. Flow-down to roadmap objectives

Universe Exploration: From the Big Bang to Life

Science is now poised to answer some of humanity's deepest questions, such as how the universe came into being; how it formed the galaxies, stars, and planets that set the stage for life; and whether there is life on other worlds. The scientific pursuit of our origin, structure, evolution and destiny requires deep and detailed explorations into space and time, and challenges the limits of America's technical capabilities in space. This roadmap articulates a long-term plan for scientific exploration of the universe, from the Big Bang to life. It is composed of two program elements, the Beyond Einstein Program and the Pathways to Life Program.

The Beyond Einstein Program explores the ultimate extremes of nature: the birth of the universe, the edges of space and time near black holes, and the darkest and emptiest space between the galaxies. It will determine the initial conditions and natural laws that govern everything that happens in the universe, from beginning to end. This program takes up the challenge to explore the origin and destiny of the universe through three roadmap objectives:

  1. Find out what powered the Big Bang.
  2. Observe how black holes manipulate space, time and matter.
  3. Uncover the nature of the mysterious dark energy pulling the universe apart.

The Beyond Einstein program's cornerstone missions are the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), the first instrument in space to measure spacetime ripples called gravitational waves, and Constellation-X (Con-X), a path-breaking X-ray telescope that can study matter near black holes. A focused line of more specialized Einstein Probe missions is dedicated to specific studies of black hole discovery, the cosmic inflation that powered the Big Bang, and the dark energy propelling the cosmic expansion today. Forward-looking technology development, as well as foundational and exploratory studies in theory, modeling, and predictive simulation, aim ultimately toward two Vision missions: the Big Bang Observer, an ultrasensitive gravitational wave observatory, and the Black Hole Imager, an X-ray interferometer.

The simple Big Bang ultimately created a rich structure, giving rise to galaxies, stars and planets. Peering back nearly 14 billion years, this global history from epoch to epoch, from the formless infant universe through nascent galaxy building to the formation of solar systems can be traced by direct observations of distant space. For example, allsky images from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) reveal the afterglow of the Big Bang, a remnant primordial radiation created by faint vibrations in matter and light half a million years after the Big Bang, triggered by the event itself. The more advanced ESA-NASA Planck Surveyor mission and eventually the Beyond Einstein Inflation Probe will measure these vibrations in exquisite detail. The weak ripples in gas and dark matter a little more matter here, a little less there later created the first stars, then the quasars powered by supermassive black holes, and finally the great cosmic web of galaxies linked by invisible rivers of dark matter and hot, tenuous gas. Con-X and LISA explore the era when massive black holes dominated; other Beyond Einstein missions will probe the era when dark energy became the dominant force in the universe.

As the universe evolved to the present day, stars played increasingly dominant roles in the evolution of matter and complex structure. Stars are the sources of the energy, light, and chemical elements that drive the cosmic cycling of matter into new generations of stars, planets, and eventually life. From hydrogen and helium created in the Big Bang comes carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and life itself. The Pathways to Life Program explores the formation and evolution of all of this grand system. It takes up the challenge to explore the structure and evolution of the universe through one overarching objective:

4. Determine how the infant universe grew into the galaxies, stars and planets, setting the stage for life.

This objective has three key components:

  • Map directly the structure and evolution of the Cosmic Web.
  • Map the flows of energy and matter between whole systems and their constituent parts, from galaxies to stars and planets.
  • Trace the evolution of nuclei, atoms, and molecules that became life.

The Pathways to Life program builds on the historic legacy of the Hubble Space Telescope, and includes the airborne Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the Gamma-ray Large-Area Space Telescope (GLAST), competed Probes, and the Pathways to Life Observatories. Con-X, LISA, and the Einstein Probes will contribute significantly. All of these explorations require the development of complex space missions with unprecedented capabilities, from new ultrasensitive detectors and precision optics, to multiple spacecraft flying in formation to subatomic accuracy. New technology development is systematically incorporated into the multiple stages of the Beyond Einstein and Pathways to Life programs. The overall plan maximizes investment return by focusing on strategic technologies, where each development pays off multiple times. Beyond the strategic space missions, NASA's scientific success depends on rapid and flexible response to new discoveries, inventing new ideas and theoretical tools supporting space science initiatives, converting hard-won data into scientific understanding, and developing promising technologies that are later incorporated into major missions. These activities are supported through a balanced portfolio of competed Research and Analysis (R&A), Probe, Discovery, Explorer, and sub-orbital programs, which collectively are designed to guarantee the continued vitality of NASA's overall space science vision, reduce major mission risks, and optimize the return on NASA's capital, technology, and manpower investments. Importantly, NASA, through its Education and Public Outreach programs and through the R&A program's support of student and postdoctoral researchers at America's universities, plays a critical role in educating the nation and training the next generation of explorers.

This roadmap describes a framework for exploration on the grandest scale. It lays out a scientific and technological agenda to discover the origin, evolution, structure and destiny of space and time, matter and energy, atoms and molecules, stars and galaxies, and ultimately life itself.

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