Discovering the universe with cutting-edge technology

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Saku Tsuneta, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, retraces the discoveries made about the Universe with cutting-edge technology in this fascinating center of astronomy

There are three main themes in 21st century astronomy: the search for extraterrestrial life; understand the beginning of the universe; and understand the nature of dark matter and dark energy. Countries around the world are rushing to build large observing facilities to address these topics. In this era of international cooperation and competition, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) actively conducts scientific research in astronomy.

Astronomy in Japan

Modern Japanese astronomy began when Harumi Shibukawa completed an original calendar, the Yamato-reki, in 1684. The first forerunner of NAOJ was the Tenmonkata (Shogunate Astronomer) Astronomical Observatory established in Asakusa in 1782, in the end from the Edo era. Japan’s three-century modernization is etched in NAOJ’s long legacy, which you can see if you walk around our headquarters campus in Mitaka, Tokyo and see the number of beautifully preserved recorded tangible cultural assets.

As an interuniversity research institute, the NAOJ mediates different opinions within research communities and develops large observational facilities that cannot be supported by individual universities and promotes their open use. Astronomy is rapidly becoming interdisciplinary; expansion into fundamental physics, chemistry, and the life sciences, and NAOJ serves as a hub for such expanding research. Reading an advanced science like astronomy requires a large budget for construction and operation. On the other hand, given the difficult financial situation in Japan, the NAOJ continuously reviews the merits of existing research facilities. NAOJ also leverages its technological strengths to solve problems facing the industry and to contribute to national efforts.

The three major observatories

Our three main observatories are the Subaru telescope, ALMA and TMT (to be built). We are also involved in several other collaborations such as the Kamioka Gravitational Wave Detector (KAGRA). In addition, NAOJ has been involved in the development and operation of space instruments such as the JAXA-NASA-UK-ESA Hinode satellite and NASA’s CLASP sounding rocket experiments. NAOJ would like to be involved in more space missions based on our heritage in advanced technologies in the field. We can only do advanced space instrumentation after we have proven the technology in the field.

In 1999, after nine years of construction and more than a century after the dawn of modern Japanese astronomy, NAOJ completed the Subaru Telescope, an 8.2m optical-infrared telescope embodying Japanese technology, near the top. of 4,200 m from Maunakea to Hawaii. I. Its success served as a catalyst for the international collaborations that followed. The Subaru telescope can detect hundreds of thousands of distant galaxies in a single observation. Within our solar system, the Subaru Telescope has helped find and characterize new targets for the long journeys of the JAXA Hayabusa2 and NASA New Horizons asteroid sample return mission. The Subaru telescope is expected to achieve significant results throughout the 2020s with its ultra-wide field of view inaccessible on other large telescopes. An ever-changing suite of instruments has kept it at the forefront of astronomy. These continuous and planned upgrades have now been authorized as a “Subaru Telescope 2.0” plan in the ROADMAP2020 selected by competition for large scientific infrastructures by the Council for Science and Technology of the Ministry of Education, Culture. , Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT).

The Atacama Large Millimeter / submillimetre Array (ALMA) composed of 66 antenna elements, on a 5000 m plateau in Chile, a global partnership between East Asia (led by Japan), Europe and North America (led by the United States) in cooperation with the Republic of Chile, has achieved unprecedented angular resolution and sensitivity. NAOJ has developed and produced key instruments, including superconducting receivers with noise levels as close to the quantum limit as possible and at the highest radio frequencies ever seen, to detect the weakest radio signals from the distant Universe. . ALMA’s development roadmap defines the technological developments necessary to significantly increase its observation capabilities. The NAOJ and other East Asian institutions will play a crucial role in this effort, and the proposed “ALMA 2.0” plan for this purpose has also been selected in ROADMAP2020.

The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), an optical-infrared telescope with an aperture of 30 meters to be built in collaboration with the United States, Canada, China and India, will be able to observe near the stars and to examine fully developed planets. TMT will use its higher resolution and greater light-gathering power to investigate targets from the far reaches of the Universe to potentially habitable planets around nearby stars.

discover the universe

During the development of the Subaru Telescope at ALMA, important scientific discoveries continued to be made transparently, such as the discovery of the most distant galaxies in the Universe; amazing images of protoplanetary disks in which exoplanets form; and the world’s first full 3D dark matter map. Soon, we predict that the true nature of dark matter and dark energy will be unearthed, a detailed model of the formation of planets will be established, and valuable information on the environments of exoplanets that may harbor life will be. obtained. These achievements will strengthen Japan’s international presence, stimulate interest in science among the population, especially the younger generation, and inspire them with pride and confidence.

Obtain astronomical results

Researchers and citizens are working together to achieve astronomical results. NAOJ promotes a citizen astronomy project called GALAXY CRUISE. Ordinary citizens classify the shapes of colliding galaxies among the vast amount of data obtained by the Subaru telescope. As of April 15, 2021, 6,508 people from 81 countries and regions had participated and the total number of ranked galaxies exceeded 1.4 million. Combining these findings with machine learning will produce a new leap in galaxy research.

The decline of Japanese science is worrying. Among 18 fields of STEM research, space science is the only field in Japan that experienced growth (relative change of 54.4%) of scientific articles surpassing the rest of the world (29.5%) between 2009 and 2019. Space sciences also have the highest share (9.2%) of papers published globally in 2019 among the 18 STEM fields in Japan.

The future of astronomy

It is an exciting time to be an astronomer. In the not-so-distant future, environments that harbor life will be discovered on planets beyond the solar system. Then, finding extraterrestrial civilizations will become the next frontier for astronomy. The field of astronomy, which has been nurtured for over three centuries in Japan and the NAOJ in particular, can be expected to be vigorous in the future.

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© 2019. This work is licensed CC BY 4.0 license.

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