Basic space science, the Third United Nations Conference on the Exploration
and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNISPACE III) and the World Space Observatory
11. The importance of the opportunities offered by the forthcoming UNISPACE III were clearly recognized by all Workshop participants. As a consequence of the accomplishments of the six workshops on basic space science, regionally identifiable activities had been initiated worldwide. The activities in Central America had culminated in the inauguration of the Telescopio Rene Sagastume Castillo in the Suyapa Observatory for Central America. The new observing facility, established in Honduras and open to all scientists in Central America, was clear evidence that the participation of developing countries in basic space science could be accelerated.
12. It was noted that, to continue and further stimulate basic space science activities
in the developing countries and maintain the impetus achieved, it was critical to ensure
not only that the research activities were stimulated, but also that a broad base of
support for basic space science was developed among the general public through a public
outreach programme. Such support would make it possible to develop and sustain the direct
participation of developing countries in front-line activities. That could only be done
with a three-phase approach involving the following issues:
Basic space science education;
Further development of locally (and regionally) identified research and educational facilities, such as networked modern observatories of moderate size;
Direct access to facilities for front-line basic space science.
13. Since the three issues clearly defined a practical and well-structured road to the
accelerated participation of developing countries in the activities of basic space science,
identifying the ways and providing the means of creating an environment to enable such
participation on a regional and worldwide basis presented an important challenge for the
14. The progress made in communications and other space-associated technologies had
created an environment in which such optimistic plans could be translated into reality, as
long as Governments and space agencies were willing to collaborate.
15. Recognizing that for sustainable development in basic space science to take place
in the next millennium a broad educational effort with a strong public outreach component
was required, the Workshop participants recommended that activities should be associated
with the preparations for UNISPACE III:
Establishing general higher educational courses;
Recognizing the career needs of scientists.
16. It was clear that such far-reaching goals could not be accomplished without
overall coordination recognizing the regional nature of the task (cultural, linguistic
etc.). That should involve the education process at all levels.
17. The inclusion of basic space science education in programmes of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was seen as an effective means of ensuring that the current strong drive for educational efforts would be sustained in a more organized way and as such would open the way into the third millennium.
18. It was noted that important research topics had been identified for studies
requiring the rapid response capability that could be provided by networks of small
telescopes. As the implementation of internationally and regionally networked telescopes
would further the development of advanced techniques and management practices, such
activities would directly benefit the development of the scientific infrastructure of
developing countries and would indirectly benefit the general population. Such telescope
networks would also represent an important mechanism for supporting and stimulating the
above-mentioned educational activities.
19. The research topics referred to in paragraph 18 above were as follows:
Stellar structure and evolution through long-term variability studies of eclipsing binaries and monitoring intrinsic variables;
The detection and study of near-Earth objects;
The detection and study of comets, asteroids and other small bodies in the solar system;
Sustained weather studies of planets other than Earth;
Discovery and study of short duration events in the universe such as supernovae, novae and other explosive phenomena;
Space weather forecasting through solar observations.
20. Since all tools required for the activities had a wide application in many other
areas of human activity in a technologically advanced world, the resulting strengthening
of the knowledge base of a country represented an important extension of the educational
21. The participants, recognizing the threat to optical astronomy posed by unbridled growth of artificial night sky background illumination, noted that astronomers needed to make strong joint efforts to educate the public and local governments in order to ensure the preservation of the night sky for such investigations. The incomplete knowledge of certain kinds of celestial objects (for example, small bodies of the solar system) was a consequence of the lack of observatories at southern latitudes. It was therefore important for astronomers from developing countries to coordinate their efforts with their counterparts in the northern hemisphere in order to achieve a more complete view of the universe.
22. It was noted that the World Space Observatory would present an excellent possibility to enable basic space scientists in developing countries to work and collaborate on an equal basis with their counterparts in the developed world. Besides providing important new information on the evolution of the universe, the World Space Observatory would help to ensure that the efforts described in paragraphs 15-21 above would improve career opportunities for the technologically well trained and educated.
23. It had become clear from the operation of astronomical space observatories during
the previous 25 years that much of the information needed to attack the major problems in
astrophysics and cosmology could only be obtained if access to all wavelength domains was
available to the entire astronomical community. That was needed not only to establish the
nature of the nearby universe at redshifts corresponding to the current epoch, but also to
gain more insight into the early stages of the evolution of the universe. Unless a detailed
knowledge of the current stage of evolution of the universe was established, all
determinations at high redshifts would be based on extrapolations.
24. It had also become clear that many aspects of the study, at widely different observation wavelengths, of the behaviour of objects in the neighbourhood of the galaxy, even within the confines of the solar system, had important implications with respect to more fundamental problems. The need for more critical testing of theoretical models meant that astrophysical observations would have to cover a broader range of wavelengths. One important aspect to be considered was the fact that, although astronomy would always be a serendipitous science, the current level of understanding was such that it was not possible to even come close to being able to predict the complete cosmic experiment of which the universe was made up.
25. As a consequence of the discussions held in the context of the workshops on basic
space science, there had been a significant increase in the participation of persons from
developing countries in the scientific activities associated with space science,
particularly in the areas of astronomy and planetary exploration. It was emphasized in the
workshops that, unless a new mechanism was brought into being that would result in an
accelerated approach to the development of science in those countries, together with a
strong public outreach effort, there would be no possibility to bridge the existing gap in
knowledge and its applications. A direct consequence of that would be that the developed
world would continue to benefit from the "brain drain" in the developing world.
26. Consequently, there would be a continuation of the vicious circle where backlogs
could only be overcome by direct technology transfer, a process that had been shown over the
decades to be inefficient, as well as unsuitable in a free-market world, where cultural
diversity represented a fact of life. To ensure that developing countries could participate
in a self-identifiable way in the adventure of scientific development and also to create
among young people an interest in seeking gratifying careers in basic space science,
alternative approaches had been identified. One possible strong contender for an efficient
tool for such stimulation was the World Space Observatory, referred to in the report on the
workshop on basic space science held in Sri Lanka in 1996 (A/AC.105/640, paras. 10 and 11)
"... Considering the increase in the participation of the developing countries in astronomy
and space science and taking into account the foreseeable rapid increase of the
participating professionals in the developing countries, it was important to establish the
tools for their participation at the most advanced scale. Since access to smaller
telescopes and the use of archival data in astronomy would result in an expanding and
professionally competent astronomical community in the developing countries, it should be
recognized that access to front-line facilities would be required for many scientists. As
the costs associated with major ground-based facilities would often pose excessive economic
burdens for the developing economies, such conditions would give rise to an unproductive
conflict cycle in which many of the best trained scientists would tend to travel elsewhere
for their professional lives, which would remove an important asset for their countries:
highly trained people.
"In a world where concentration of first-scale astronomical acilities is an unstoppable trend, a technologically attractive solution could be supplied by a World Space Observatory. That would also stimulate industrial development, enhance and improve communications infrastructure and allow ... local access to a prime astronomical facility."
27. It was noted that, in the programmatic outlook of the major space agencies, the
observing facilities for the astronomical community in the ultraviolet domain were
projected to face a severe lack of capabilities for the first 25 years of the next
millennium. That would pose a serious problem to future generations in terms of the
transferral of acquired knowledge and the related experience obtained through the
educational systems. The Workshop participants considered the ultraviolet domain to range
from 100 to 350 nanometres (nm) in the electromagnetic spectrum. The short wavelength limit
set at 100 nm was determined by the point where specialized technologies had to be applied
to obtain reasonable efficiency in the instrumentation. The long wavelength end set at 350
nm was associated with the atmospheric cut-off by the atmospheric ozone absorption and
other issues affecting the efficiency of ground-based instruments. That wavelength domain
was solely accessible from spacecraft, as not even stratospheric balloons could rise above
the level where the ozone absorption was located. The main instrument that had opened up
and served the needs of the international astronomical community in that wavelength domain
had been the International Ultraviolet Explorer (IUE), a joint project of NASA, in the
United States, ESA in Europe and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council,
launched in 1978, in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. IUE had been
turned off on 30 September 1996, after over 18 years of successful orbital science
operations for a wide community of astrophysicists.
28. The only observing capability in that wavelength domain, for the foreseeable future,
could be supplied by the Hubble space telescope (HST). However, due to its multi-purpose
nature, HST only support a limited amount of observations and with its exceptional optical
quality, should only be used for investigations requiring its unique capabilities. It was
also an important facility for the near infra-red and was vital for the direct imaging of
29. The programmatic structure of the major space agencies did not currently include any project that would supply the general ultraviolet capabilities needed by the astronomical community. It had become clear in recent years that the major space agencies were not well placed to support the long-term needs of a scientific community on a global scale. The budgetary constraints of the major space agencies were often such that long-term operations of successful projects would be hampered by simultaneous pressure to develop new, technologically more interesting projects.
30. The basic idea behind the World Space Observatory was that general facilities for
astronomical observations in the windows that required satellite observatories were better
done through a project with worldwide support, participation and contribution than with
specific projects defined in a more confined national configuration. There were various
reasons for that, including the following:
The needs were essentially similar in most countries, while specific study areas tended to show regional trends of equivalent scientific value;
The needs for the stimulation of intellectual capabilities in developing countries could not be supported in their national environment alone with any other possible astronomical facilities (e.g. ground-based or otherwise) at economically viable costs;
The continued need for studies bearing on the relevance of the place of humankind in the universe required continued support and could not be driven by addressing currently popular questions with prestigious projects only;
A large community of astrophysicists (45 per cent of the active members of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) had been associated with IUE) would continue to demand support for their science, as an extensive interruption of that support over a period of more than a generation would have drastic effects on the evolution of knowledge, which would be an essential part of the cultural environment in the twenty-first century.
31. The World Space Observatory concept could in the long run include space
observatories for different wavelength domains, including X-rays and gamma rays, even
taking over the operations of projects launched by major space agencies with funding for
32. The World Space Observatory should be conceived not as technology development
projects for developed countries but as low-cost projects where the main emphasis would
be on the required observation sensitivity and the stability of operations. Since many
aspects of the necessary observatories might not involve the development of the most
advanced technologies, but would rely on well-established technologies (such as
communications satellites), the projects could be developed in a more cost-effective manner
than projects normally undertaken by the major space agencies.
33. The current climate was especially suited to the initiation of such a concept for
the following reasons:
The concentration of facilities in astronomy: the limited number of high-quality facilities was an unstoppable trend;
A mechanism for the indigenous development of science was a prerequisite for the developing world;
The technology available for communications was sufficiently developed for the concept to be implemented without placing heavy economic burdens on all the parties involved;
The spacecraft technology required for such an observatory had matured;
The overall technological capabilities required to develop in the ultraviolet domain an orbital telescope 2 metres in size, with image quality in the range of 0.5 arcsec, could be envisioned as a project of limited costs;
The chance to develop local capabilities with the direct and essentially local participation of all countries presented an enormously attractive possibility in terms of stimulating the interest of all levels of society in the exploration of the universe, especially if it were combined with a strong public outreach programme;
A scientific community that had been shown to be thriving appeared to be left without observational opportunities.
34. It was noted that, with the participation of the major space agencies, such as NASA, ESA, and the Institute of Space and Astronautical Sciences of Japan and the Russian Space Agency, as well as the acceptance of the participative nature of such a project by all national agencies, the fundamental aspects of a World Space Observatory could easily be seen to be attractive and feasible.