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Should Astronomy Join the New Space Economy?

Astronomy as a discipline might need a new long-term approach.

A new paper published recently in the preprint database arXiv.org is making some strong and compelling arguments for the commercialization of space-based astronomy missions.

"I develop the argument that large science experiments are becoming comparable to terrestrial civil infrastructures in terms of cost," writes Guillem Anglada-Escudé in his paper. "As a result, these should incorporate plans for a return on investment (or impact, not necessarily economic), require a different approach for inter-division coordination within the European Space Agency (ESA), and a broader participation of all society stakeholders (civil society representatives, and the broader public)."

Anglada-Escudé argues that the exorbitant costs associated with new observatories and missions are usually reserved for major civil projects which come with many tangible benefits to the public; whereas the benefits of astronomical projects are not understood or well-received by the public.

Second, astronomical projects have long timescales taking 10 to 20 years for a mission to go from the planning stage to actual data collection. This means that investors do not see a quick enough return on their money and that scientists may have to dedicate their entire lives' work to just one mission.

Anglada-Escudé offers the following solution to these concerns: Create astronomical projects with direct public benefit. He argues that astronomers should focus on smaller, less-expensive programs and take advantage of already funded programs like the many satellites launched by telecommunications companies.

In addition, the astronomical community could work with engineers, architects, energy suppliers, and other professionals to make their projects more cost-efficient and perhaps even provide a return on investments by reconsidering what else astronomical missions could be used for.

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For instance, could a new astronomical observatory provide some kind of direct public benefit? Then by all means that benefit should be leveraged to build the observatory. 

The paper offers a clever new way to approach the future of astronomical projects, one that may very well literally pay off.

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