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Construction of TMT and Beyond: A new-year’s message from the Director General, NAOJ

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Happy New Year! Last year, ALMA and the Subaru Telescope produced significant findings throughout the year. The ALMA open use Cycle 5 started in October 2017 and recorded a total observation time of 4,000 hours with its 12-m antennas, a substantial increase compared to the 3,000 hours of Cycle 4. This was possible thanks to the tireless efforts of the staff of the Chile Observatory and Joint ALMA Observatory in improving operations. Other facilities were also productive. In particular I want to recognize the solar observation satellite Hinode, the open use computers at the Center for Computational Astrophysics (CfCA), and the Nobeyama 45-m Radio Telescope. And thanks to support from universities, the 188-cm Reflector Telescope reborn as a dedicated exoplanet telescope at Subaru Telescope’s Okayama Branch and the Nobeyama Radio Heliograph have continued to produce interesting results on the dynamic Sun.

Additionally, NAOJ is playing a major role in the Large-scale Cryogenic Gravitational Wave Telescope, KAGRA, led by the Institute for Cosmic Ray Research. KAGRA construction is approaching culmination, with a goal of joining America’s LIGO, and Europe’s Virgo in observations in the latter half of this year.

The Solar research group has been active as well. Following the success of the NASA sounding rocket experiment FOXSI-3, equipped with our X-ray photon counting camera, and the previous success of the CLASP experiment, the ultraviolet spectro-polarimeter telescope for the CLASP2 sounding rocket was shipped to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Development of the near-infrared spectro-polarimeter for the Sunrise-3 international large-scale balloon experiment is also progressing well. Each of these three recent in-flight instruments was led by NAOJ, with funding acquired from external sources.

NAOJ has produced many outstanding accomplishments that have contributed greatly to the field of astronomy, and is recognized both at home and abroad as a world leading research institute. In order to make this success sustainable and progressive, I proposed the following six point agenda for NAOJ when I assumed to the position of Director General in April of last year:

  1. Applying our full strength to the development and operation of large projects, first and foremost the Thirty Meter Telescope Project (TMT),
  2. Kickoff to study the candidates for future NAOJ large-scale projects to follow TMT,
  3. Cultivating organic cooperation with universities and the astronomy community,
  4. Appropriate use of human resources within NAOJ,
  5. Appealing to the importance of astronomy via its future vision to policy makers and the media, and
  6. Pursuing space missions.

Here, at the start of a new year, I would like to discuss the progress and future outlook of some of these points.

TMT is an extremely large telescope underway as a joint project between Japan, the United States, Canada, China, and India. In this project, NAOJ is in charge of manufacturing the primary mirror and main body of the telescope. Construction in the summit area of Maunakea in Hawai‘i has been suspended for three years, a cause of concern for all involved, but even during the construction stoppage, design and production have been progressing steadily in Japan as well as other countries.

The State of Hawai‘i Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR), approved the sublease agreement executed between the University of Hawai‘i in charge of the management of the Maunakea lands and the TMT International Observatory (TIO) in July 2014, and in September 2017, it granted the Conservation District Use Permit (CDUP) which is required to build in the Maunakea summit area. Lawsuits were filed in response to the BLNR decisions. But the Supreme Court of Hawai‘i ruled that there are no problems in the sublease agreement in August 2018, and in October of the same year the court found the CDUP to be valid. Having continuously engaged in a number of dialogues with the community of Hawai‘i, we have obtained its greater support and understanding, and are currently proceeding carefully in discussions with stakeholders in Hawai‘i to prepare for resuming construction expeditiously. So in expectation of good, but busy, times ahead we are ramping up our activities, including arranging to dispatch additional NAOJ staff to the Pasadena Headquarters to strengthen our operations there.

The three major projects of the Subaru Telescope, ALMA, and TMT have received support from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) Large-Scale Academic Frontier Promotion Project. However, because the projects’ initial finance periods will expire soon, this year will be an important time for proposing facility upgrades (working titles “Subaru 2” and “ALMA 2”, or “Super Subaru” and “Super ALMA”) that will enable new scientific break-throughs. Subaru 2 will have three main instruments. One is Hyper Suprime-Cam (HSC), the ultra-wide field-of-view camera that is already the Subaru Telescope’s leading instrument. The second is the Subaru Prime Focus Spectrograph (PFS), an international collaborative project developed by 7 countries led by Kavli IPMU at the University of Tokyo. The last is the Ultra-wide Laser Tomographic Imager and Multi-Object Spectrograph with AO for Transcendent Exploration (“ULTIMATE”), which is in the proposal stage. We are proposing to start ULTIMATE scientific observations as early as possible, so we would definitely like to begin work on it this year. With its ultra-wide-field observation capabilities, the Subaru Telescope is certain to remain a leading contributor to world astronomy during the 2020’s. As you can tell from this instrument suite, the Subaru Telescope will specialize in wide-field observations, simplifying operations. In order to realize a relationship where TMT performs detailed follow-up observations of objects discovered by the Subaru Telescope, we need to integrate the operation of TMT and the Subaru Telescope.

In order to promote our future plans, we will utilize the framework of A projects(Note 1). “A projects” are new projects expected to stimulate future developments in the field of astronomy. We loosened the application requirements and called for proposals. I am excited to announce that several new projects will start this year. I am expecting that from some of these new projects, we will see new space mission proposals to participate in large-scale missions not only with JAXA but also NASA and ESA. Furthermore, we will aim to have A project leaders chosen from among the younger generation as often as possible, in order to give them experience and develop future leaders capable of handling the major projects of NAOJ. With these developments, we hope that following TMT, there will be smaller budget international projects running alongside the major projects. The role of the Advanced Technology Center, which develops the technology required for future projects, will become even more important. In connection with this new strategy, the “NAOJ research grants,” which functioned to renegotiate shortfalls in the observatory’s budget allocation, will be abolished. Beginning in fiscal year 2019, it will become the "DG’s Fund." It will serve to fund basic development and investment in facilities for future plans under the leadership of the Director General.

Other than projects and centers, NAOJ established the four Research Divisions (the Division of Theoretical Astronomy, Division of Radio Astronomy, Division of Optical and Infrared Astronomy, and Division of Solar and Plasma Astrophysics) with the purpose of producing scientific findings apart from the project work. But lately observations have started to cross over the traditional wavelength boundaries, reducing the meaning of organizations specific to each wavelength such as radio waves and optical-infrared. Considering this and the fact that only a small number of researchers have belonged exclusively to a research division, the research divisions will be integrated to form the Division of Science with the aim of promoting multi-messenger astronomy and stimulating discussions of future plans, in addition to carrying out the duties the research divisions have fulfilled up until now.

MEXT's large-scale scientific project budget for academic research has shrunk considerably compared to its peak period. This makes operating and developing new highly-productive large-scale observation facilities difficult. That being said, given the current financial conditions of the country, I understand how hard it is to convince the government and citizens of the importance of science for its own sake. NAOJ needs to strive to satisfy the following four points to get through these difficult times:

  1. Continually produce remarkable scientific achievements by promoting international collaboration on appealing large-scale projects,
  2. Creating new fields of study by linking existing fields,
  3. Scrap and build on our own, and
  4. Utilize the technical assets of NAOJ to contribute in areas such as business innovation.

Managing complex large-scale international projects to build one-of-a-kind facilities in the world has become one of the strengths of NAOJ. New fields have been born by coordinating with other disciplines, from fundamental physics to life sciences. These include multi-messenger astronomy from coordination between KAGRA and electromagnetic-wave telescopes; exoplanet surveys and astrobiology research made possible by coordinating with the Astrobiology Center founded by NINS in 2015; and support for open use observations on Kyoto University’s 3.8 m “Seimei Telescope” by the reorganized Okayama Branch of Subaru Telescope, which was Okayama Astrophysical Observatory before its closure in March of 2018. Also, we are considering setting up an industrial liaison office to make full use of NAOJ’s technical potential.

NAOJ has always sought to reduce costs and make effective use of resources in order to achieve the projects with the highest priority with limited budget and human resources. The history of NAOJ could be described as a continuous cycle of scrap and build. While promoting new leading-edge large-scale projects such as the Subaru Telescope, ALMA, and TMT, we have closed domestic facilities which supported the development of Japanese astronomy for many years. Some of these, such as the gravitational wave interferometer TAMA300, have gone on to serve as testbeds for developing new technologies and training young researchers following the conclusion of their missions, and some continue to be active internationally. Also, the former Nobeyama Solar Radio Observatory and the former Okayama Astrophysical Observatory telescopes are still to this day funded through domestic and overseas sources, and are operated mainly through universities with a strong desire to continue using these outstanding facilities even after the closure of their respective observatories. Universities have played a large role in these activities. I think a new perspective is required regarding the relationship between NAOJ and these universities. We will continue to reexamine existing projects in order to better delegate and concentrate NAOJ resources.

There is concern about the decline of Japanese science. Eleven of the fourteen divisions of natural sciences, which include physics, chemistry, medical science, and materials science, have experienced drops in the number of scientific papers published, and reports have indicated that even the fields that aren't experiencing drops are falling behind the world average. Astronomy however, is the only field of study in Japan that is experiencing a growth in scientific articles while also exceeding worldwide averages. Among the fourteen divisions of natural sciences in Japan, astronomy also has the highest share of papers published worldwide(Note 2). The Subaru Telescope and ALMA have been major milestones for science in Japan. Large-scale observation facilities such as these served as the foundation for the rapid development of astronomy in Japan. They can be considered agents of new developments and stimulation for academic research among the Inter-University Research Institute and other national institutions. They have increased Japan's international profile, while instilling a sense of pride and interest in science among citizens, especially the younger generation. Keeping with its duty as part of the Inter-University Research Institute, NAOJ intends to continue striving towards pioneering new technology, and proposing and realizing attractive large-scale international collaborative projects.

January 8, 2019
Dr. Saku Tsuneta