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European Task Force for Laboratory Astrophysics


Midterm report on recommendations regarding the establishment

of a European Laboratory Astrophysics Network

November 2013


Executive summary

Laboratory astrophysics provides vital underpinning to observational astronomy as well as being a

vibrant and scientifically challenging discipline in its own right. There is considerable laboratory

astrophysics activity in Europe, much of it world leading. However, the work is fragmented and, with the exception of the area of nuclear astrophysics, poorly coordinated and patchily funded, and, in

places, poorly recognised. To address these issues we recommend:

A. Community building measures both within the laboratory astrophysics community itself and between astronomers and laboratory astrophysics researchers working on common themes.

These activities should form a natural part of any planning for future astronomical missions.

For this we propose European-scale networking activities and fellowships which will allow young scientists to move between laboratory astrophysics and observational astronomy groups, and help attract other institutions to laboratory astrophysics.

B. 2% of all funding for major space missions and ground based observatories should be dedicated to supporting laboratory astrophysics activity.

C. Building on the work performed by the Virtual Atomic and Molecular Data Center (VAMDC) consortium to provide access to data in all key areas of laboratory astrophysics. This work should be integrated with that of the Virtual Observatory (VO).

D. Working with publishers to ensure due recognition of data providers and to allow for better integration of laboratory astrophysics within the astronomy literature.

E. Raising the profile and visibility of European laboratory astrophysics.

F. Curacy of various Solar System material returned by space missions by establishment of European facilities.

1. The need for Laboratory Astrophysics Laboratory Astrophysics is an essential prerequisite for all aspects of astronomical investigation. It provides the physical, chemical and/or biological underpinning necessary to plan, design and interpret astronomical observations. Without a deep and detailed understanding of the underlying science of the processes being observed, it is not possible to fully interpret astronomical observations. Similarly, laboratory data provides much of the input for astrophysical models. A vibrant and focused astrophysical laboratory community is therefore essential to provide the necessary data and scientific foundations, without which the true return from investment in expensive astronomical facilities and probes cannot be realised. Laboratory astrophysics is thus a central part of astronomy and the requirement for it needs to be incorporated in the strategic planning for all missions both ground-based and space-borne. These missions often involve the investments in excess of a billion Euros, yet there are no European-level structural budgets in place for any corresponding investment in supporting laboratory studies.

While laboratory astrophysics should be regarded as a necessary support activity for wider astronomical investigations, it is also a discipline in its own right. Laboratory astrophysics probes the properties of matter at all extremes: extremes of temperatures, extremes of pressure and extremes of energy. This work is therefore intellectually challenging and driven by curiosity about the fundamental behaviour of matter in environments not routinely encountered on Earth. This work naturally leads to discoveries which impact on other disciplines as well as society, sometimes very significantly. We cite, for example, the discovery of C60 by Kroto et al., who were attempting to explain interstellar medium absorptions by diffuse interstellar bands. This work led to the foundation of a whole new discipline in the physical sciences and the award of a Nobel Prize, with important extensions into material sciences including the development of carbon nanotubes, as well as the further discovery of graphene, for which another Nobel Prize was awarded in 2010. C60 and recently its ion C60+ have since been identified in astrophysical sources ranging from planetary nebulae to young stellar objects.

Laboratory astrophysics is by its very nature interdisciplinary, requiring a deep understanding of core laboratory science plus knowledge of astronomy, and often much more besides. It therefore offers excellent training opportunities as it produces multi-skilled and flexible scientists who are experienced in interacting with scientists from other disciplines.

2. What is Laboratory Astrophysics?

The ASTRONET project developed a strategic plan for European astronomy1, henceforth referred to as the astronomy Infrastructure Roadmap. The Roadmap identified laboratory astrophysics as an area in need of attention and created the European Task Force for Laboratory Astrophysics (ETFLA) to help shape this agenda. The ETFLA, the membership of which is given in Table 1, and which has met six times, are the authors of the present report.

–  –  –

The astronomy infrastructure roadmap defines laboratory astrophysics as “laboratory physics, chemistry and biology, and theoretical calculations and modelling, of atomic, molecular, nuclear and solid-state properties, processes and associated astrophysical phenomena that are required to ensure the success of current and future research programmes in … astronomy”. We are happy to endorse this definition.

For purposes of collecting data and analysing different scientific issues we divided laboratory astrophysics into nine scientific themes and ETFLA members each took responsibility to

examine one or two of these in detail:

A. Gas-Phase astrochemistry (Interstellar Medium, ISM, and planetary atmospheres);

B. Spectroscopy of the ISM;

C. Spectroscopy in hot bodies (opacities) ;

D. Solid state and molecular complexity;

E. Stellar and planetary formation;

F. Primitive and planetary material;

G. High-energy processes and space plasmas;

H. Stellar evolution and nuclear astrophysics;

I. Astrophysical conditions for the emergence of life;

all of which are augmented by one underpinning theme:

J. Databases.

The ASTRONET Infrastructure Roadmap: A Strategic Plan for European Astronomy. Editors: Michael F. Bode, Maria J. Cruz & Frank J. Molster, ISBN: 978-3-923524-63-1 (ASTRONET, 2008).

3. The international perspective Internationally, laboratory astrophysics is increasingly recognised as a core underpinning activity. From an organisational point-of-view, the USA has taken the international lead with (a) the formation of a Laboratory Astrophysics Division (LAD) as part of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), (b) the formation of the Subdivision of Astrochemistry of the American Chemical Society (ACS) Division, (c) the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)’s long-standing Astrophysics and Astrochemistry Laboratory at their Ames and Goddard Space Flight Research Centres and (d) a series of NASA workshops and white papers coordinating activity and funding in laboratory astrophysics with core astronomical objectives. We cite the co-ordinated laboratory programme to characterise the spectra of the ISM “weed” molecules prior to the commissioning of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to maximise the discovery potential of this facility as an exemplar of this. An earlier example was co-ordinated funding for laboratory studies in the USA in connection with the European Space Agency (ESA)-led Herschel mission.

By contrast, coordination between astrophysical objectives and laboratory work in Europe has remained relatively weak. There has been some networking activity at the national level, and EU training networks (notably the Laboratory Astrochemical Surface Science In Europe (LASSIE) interdisciplinary training network in the field of solid state astrochemistry and the European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) action – the Chemical Cosmos have been funded). In the nuclear astrophysics area, the EuroGENESIS – Origin of the Elements and Nuclear History of the Universe – collaborative research programme provides something of a role model for other areas.

On the observational side much astronomical activity is highly coordinated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and astronomical space missions are coordinated by ESA. This level of organisation and focus on key astronomical objectives has not been reflected in laboratory work in Europe.

4. Laboratory astrophysics in Europe

In order to assess European activity in laboratory astrophysics and to identify the issues involved in doing such work in Europe, ETFLA undertook a study to identify the groups performing laboratory astrophysics research in Europe, and survey them; a copy of the survey is given in Appendix 1. Before sending out the survey we compiled a list of European groups we identified as performing research in the area of laboratory astrophysics. We identified approximately 250 groups although this figure has some double counting as some groups work in more than one theme. A list of these can be found on the ETFLA website (www.labastro.eu). However, there are undoubtedly groups missing at this stage as it proved difficult to identify all those working in the area. A complication is that only a minority of groups define their main activity as laboratory astrophysics with many more doing astrophysically-related work alongside scientific activities performed with other objectives.

We undertook the survey in an open manner and added new groups as they were identified.

We received returns from approximately half of the groups approached. Figure 1 gives some statistics on the groups surveyed by theme. The individual surveys contain a lot of detail and here we will only consider common themes.

Figure 1 : Number of groups surveyed per theme and response rate A. Gas-Phase astrochemistry; B. Spectroscopy of the ISM; C. Spectroscopy in hot bodies; D. Solid state and molecular complexity; E. Stellar and planetary formation; F. Primitive and planetary material; G. High-energy processes and space plasmas; H. Stellar evolution and nuclear astrophysics; I. Astrophysical conditions for the emergence of life; J. Databases.

A. The overall picture is that there is quite a lot of activity in laboratory astrophysics in Europe, though with some notable gaps, that much of it is of high quality and some even world leading.

B. However, the work is very fragmented. Most groups do not align their work with either major astronomical goals or current/forthcoming astronomical missions. The linkage between the demands of the European astronomical community and the laboratory activities is therefore very limited. Furthermore, on the European scale there appears to be too few attempts to coordinate laboratory activities to really meet astronomical priorities. An important exception to this is the M€ 2.5 ESF-funded EuroGENESIS project which assembled about 200 experimental and theoretical nuclear physicists, stellar modellers, experimental and theoretical astrchemists, and observational astronomers from 30 research institutions and 16 countries.

C. Funding for laboratory astrophysics is overwhelmingly provided by national agencies and frequently through disciplines other than astrophysics. This makes the funding landscape uneven and with some countries (notably France, The Netherlands and Spain) committing considerably more funding to this area than others. Laboratory astrophysics suffers from the problems that tend to beset interdisciplinary science. For example, as recognised in the infrastructure roadmap, it rarely features in national astronomy road maps. The long-term curacy of key data and the development of novel experimental techniques designed for answering questions of astronomical importance were highlighted as particular funding issues.

D. France, Germany, The Netherlands, Spain (until affected by adverse economic conditions) and the Nordic countries have all funded some national/regional networks linking laboratory astrophysics in certain key areas with the relevant astronomers. Some of these networks also undertake collective training activities. The integration of laboratory and astronomical research on a particular activity, as exemplified by the EuroGENESIS project, is clearly to be encouraged. We regard these networking activities as role models that should be followed on a European scale.

E. Some scientists identified problems in publishing their results as (a) certain astronomy journals did not welcome work in the area of laboratory astrophysics and (b) results are often incorporated into databases leading to few citations even for heavily used original work (this also appears to be the underlying issue with problem (a)).

F. Europe appears to be successful in creating a set of highly used databases providing the results of laboratory astrophysics studies in a form ready to use for astronomers. We welcome the coordinating role undertaken by the EU funded Virtual Atomic and Molecular Data Centre (VAMDC, www.vamdc.eu) in developing and implementing an interoperable database whose portal provides single point access to a large range of validated data. VAMDC has also encouraged formalised standards in data storage and manipulation via the use of a specially developed schema, Extensible Markup Language (XML) scheme for Atoms, Molecules and Solids (XSAMS), which was originally developed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); IAEA retains control over XSAMS standards and releases. However, long-term funding support for database maintenance and updating, so-called data curacy remains a serious and important issue.

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