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

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"If you look toward the future, we're going to have to be doing more, not less, international coordination and collaboration," says panel member Michael Turner, an astrophysicist at the University of Chicago. "The projects that we're doing are very big, very bold, and very expensive. And the scientific visions that we have are converging."

What the plan wants

The report was released Friday by the National Research Council's Committee for a Decadal Survey of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

On the ground, the committee's highest priority is the Large-Scale Synoptic Telescope, or LSST. It's a 8.4-meter telescope that is designed to photograph the entire sky every three days. Objects in any single patch of sky will get their portraits taken roughly 1,000 times over 10 years. The aim is to detect more rapidly exotic explosions and other transient events that a less exhaustive sky survey might miss.

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.

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.

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