Astronomy in 2030

By Clark M. Thomas

Plato said "awe is the beginning of philosophy." It is also the beginning of science, and a door to becoming our very best selves.

When I was ten years young in the mid-1950s there was another very active astronomy club in Roanoke to which I belonged. We met monthly in the Roanoke Library on the second floor.

Frequently a dozen or so of us assembled at Cahas to view the heavens through telescopes. We all had a great time gazing at faint fuzzies with our homemade six-inch reflectors. Nobody knew what a CCD was.

Two of my fun memories were being at Cahas when it really was a dark skies site and when about ten adult club members were arranged in a line of chairs, peering into strange finder scopes that pointed downward toward the ground. Oh yes, there was a mirror attached to each tiny scope that reflected a precise area of the sky. In this way our adult viewers, along with other cooperating clubs, could listen to Naval Observatory time on the short wave radio and thereby track...are you ready for this?...the first American satellites. Soon our military developed the capability to track their own launches, to see if they went into orbit. We were happy to play our part at the beginning, and nobody complained when our contribution was replaced by technology.

Flash forward to today to find a much different amateur astronomy scene. There remain a few antediluvians who actually look at the firmament through visual telescopes. More and more, however, amateur astronomy is separated from professional astronomy only by the cost of the electronic toys. Today's well equipped CCD amateurs in dark skies locations can secure and process images more compelling than images from even the largest observatory telescopes of my childhood.

It is tempting to project a straight line to the near future, such as 2030. This date is far enough into the future to realistically conceive; but not so far as to be mostly science fiction. Let's see what's in store both for amateurs and professionals:

The inspiration for this essay is Ray Villard's essay in Discovery News, entitled "The 'Virtual Universe' Will be Full of Discoveries."

Mr. Villard details all the fantastic equipment that will be at the command of professional astronomers. The frontiers of our science will be pushed closer to the local big bang. Some great questions will be layered over with finer hypotheses, but never really answered. It will be a time of vast raw data accumulations pouring into our virtual astronomical library. Hundreds or even thousands of armchair professional astronomers who never look through any great instruments will thereby be employed to look for patterns.

Villard's vision of full employment for armies of astronomical technicians is naively flawed. Trained human eyes will mostly be superseded by super-intelligent pattern recognizing programs. Humans will mostly be left to abstract theorizing, and to very high level analysis of data patterns.

Nevertheless, our visual cortices will continue to team up with analytical grey matter to sometimes challenge the AI, at least until 2030. One example is the recent armchair discovery of nova ring signatures in galactic clouds above the Milky Way. They are just sitting there on selected web images, as if waiting for discovery. That's the spirit of my recent talk to the club. Review the evidence in our January 2011 RVAS newsletter, pages 11-14.

Some amateurs in 2030 will be out on cold nights with modest equipment, exploring the same skies I enjoyed with awe in the 1950s. No matter how many billions are spent on Big Astronomy, money cannot buy awe. Just one night under a clear dark sky gives it to us for free. I like to imagine that Plato became a philosopher one night under his celestial canopy.