National Astronomical Observatory of Japan

A new-year’s message from the Director General, NAOJ

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Last year, we fully committed to the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). 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 the whole telescope system, among other components.

Last year, the legal procedures to resume the construction of TMT in Hawai'i were finished, so we were planning to restart construction last July. However, as people who protest against the construction of TMT blocked the roads to the building site, we had to suspend the construction again and temporarily couldn’t even access the existing Maunakea telescopes including the Subaru Telescope. We are exploring all possible ways to overcome the situation including a Hawaiian practice of reconciliation known as “Hoʻoponopono” with representatives of the protesters to hear the voices of native Hawaiians.

For now, our decision to build TMT on Maunakea is still solid, but if we find it impossible to build the telescope in Hawai'i and the U.S. Government and Congress approve the budget for the project, we are prepared to move the construction site to La Palma, the back-up site in the Canary Islands. In that case, we will once again need to consult and obtain the approval of the Japanese Government with its various councils and oversight committees.

We haven’t just sat by and done nothing since 2015, when the construction process was first suspended. I would like to emphasize that we have spent this time for careful design, test production, and actual production. Particularly when it comes to the telescope design, we have conducted prototyping for a series of components such as a tracking system with unprecedented accuracy and a seismic isolator that will allow the telescope to withstand major earthquakes. As a result, we have achieved a highly matured design with low technical risks allowing us to start the TMT construction right now. Last November, the main components of TMT passed their Critical Design Reviews. Together with ongoing primary mirror manufacturing and instrument design activities, NAOJ is helping to earn recognition that the entire project is highly viable.

Here I must mention the severe budget situation of NAOJ. The general budget for NAOJ is automatically cut by 1.6 %, nearly 100 million yen, per year. Extrapolating from this, the grants for 2028 would be 800 million yen lower than last year, and the total grant cuts over the next 10 years would be about 3.4 billion yen.

Unfortunately, as it doesn’t look like the situation is going to improve, NAOJ needs to promote existing and new efforts in a visionary manner, in anticipation of decreasing grants for the coming decade. In order to achieve this, we must update and streamline the existing projects and further strengthen international cooperation.

As I said in last year's New Year's message, the following four points are important: continually delivering remarkable scientific achievements; creating new fields by linking existing fields; updating and streamlining the existing projects; and utilization of the technical assets of NAOJ to contribute in areas such as business innovation. I intend to manage NAOJ while bearing these key points in mind. Here, I would like to discuss the progress and future directions of these four points.

As for the first “continually producing remarkable scientific achievements,” NAOJ has achieved various scientific feats. The highlights from last year that particularly persist in my memory are: the research that observed the microlensing of myriads of stars in the Andromeda Galaxy by using Subaru Telescope’s Hyper Suprime-Cam (HSC) to determine that dark matter is not made up of tiny black holes; the study that discovered nearly 100 quasars 13 billion light-years away (redshift of z=6) to show that massive black holes had already formed only a billion years after the birth of the Universe; and ALMA’s observations that detected molecules of acetaldehyde, acetone, and other organic material in a protoplanetary disk and observations pinpointing planet forming regions in a protoplanetary disk. Of course, there were many other interesting and important discoveries published by NAOJ.

In addition to these, the first imaging of a black hole shadow by the millimeter VLBI network including ALMA is really big news. A research team from Mizusawa VLBI Observatory contributed to this breakthrough, adding color to the 120th anniversary of the International Latitude Observatory of Mizusawa.

In 2019, the Subaru Telescope achieved a wide range of scientific results ranging from Solar System objects to the distant Universe. Particularly, HSC has achieved significant results and its excellent ability to survey has been producing high-quality data unrivaled by any other telescope in the world. The Subaru Telescope has also started a strategic program using the InfraRed Doppler (IRD) instrument, aiming to detect Earth-like planets. The 20th-anniversary celebration of the Subaru Telescope was held last June and gathered many attendees from various fields, reflecting the large number of breakthroughs from the Subaru Telescope.

ALMA has also been producing a wide range of scientific results. In Cycle 7, ALMA accepted additional proposals for observations using the 7-m antennas. In the domestic activity, development, computing, and operation teams of the ALMA project, collaborating with international partners, ensured the smooth operation of ALMA and increased the efficiency of the data analysis. Another major achievement was the overhaul of the Japanese 12-m antennas. In instrument development, two development projects led by East Asia have passed the final review prior to installation. One is the Band 1 receivers, which enable the lowest frequency observations of ALMA, and the other is a spectrometer for the ALMA Compact Array. The receiver team of the Advanced Technology Center successfully developed a wideband receiver using SIS junctions with a high critical current density for the first time in the world, paving the way for the ALMA 2 project.

As for the Large-scale Cryogenic Gravitational Wave Telescope KAGRA, vibration isolation systems developed by NAOJ were installed in last May. To participate in the third observing run (O3) of LIGO/Virgo, KAGRA must be sensitive enough to detect “a binary neutron star collision more than 1 Mpc away,” so we are working to improve the sensitivity to reach that goal. Moreover, the development of technologies necessary for the upgrade of KAGRA is underway at TAMA300, the interferometric gravitational wave detector located at Mitaka Campus. With the start of KAGRA observations and the latest technologies developed at TAMA300, I hope 2020 will bring a great leap in gravitational-wave astronomy.

The solar research group has been active as well. Following the success of CLASP1, NASA’s sounding rocket carrying the CLASP2 high-precision UV spectro-polarimeter was successfully launched last April. Peer-reviewed papers published by CfCA have also been increasing, reaching a total of 141 in FY 2018. This year, we aim to provide world-leading achievements through continuous upgrading of the observation facilities, just as in last year.

As for the second point “creating new fields of study,” we invited Kazuhisa Mitsuda, a professor at ISAS, as Director of Engineering. His mission includes directing NAOJ’s involvement in JAXA’s future space science program. In addition, we started offering tenure-track positions for astroinformatics researchers in cooperation with the Institute of Statistical Mathematics.

We received many proposals for small projects in 2018, and as a result, we established two small projects, two study groups (ng-VLA and SKA), and one university collaboration project last year. We selected the Prime Focus Spectrograph (PFS) and the Ground Layer Adaptive Optics (GLAO) as small projects, both of which are instruments for the Subaru Telescope. PFS, which is attracting world-wide attention, is scheduled to achieve engineering first light in 2020 and to become available for open-use in 2022. GLAO is intended to achieve wide field-of-view and high spatial resolution in infrared imaging by changing the secondary mirror of the Subaru Telescope to a deformable one. These two projects are the key factors for the upcoming Subaru Telescope 2 project. I am hoping these efforts will successfully progress and yield desirable results this year.

The third point “updating and streamlining the existing projects” is proceeding as well. Nobeyama Radio Observatory, which marked 36 years of operation this year, is now struggling to cut operational costs under the direction of Kenichi Tatematsu, Head of Nobeyama Radio Observatory. At the same time, the data from legacy projects including the Galactic Plane Survey are being opened to the public and we expect these data will be widely used as a foundation for ALMA and other future research.

Early last January, the Okayama 188-cm Reflector Telescope, operated by Tokyo Institute of Technology, started automatic queue observations with a high dispersion spectrograph for the first time in Japan and is searching for exoplanets. Kyoto University's Seimei Telescope produced stellar images of 1 arc-second resolution, reaching the limit of atmospheric turbulence. This success has established Japan’s first active control technology for a segmented mirror telescope. Following this, NAOJ’s open-use program for the Seimei Telescope has been is progressing steadily.

In South America, ASTE, which had been out of operation for a long time due to a major failure, has returned to operations thanks to the efforts of Shinichiro Asayama, Head of NAOJ Chile and has restarted open-use observations. ASTE has also succeeded in the test observations using new ALMA Band 10 receivers, which were developed at the Advanced Technology Center and have much higher sensitivity than the previous model installed in ALMA. As the only telescope capable of survey observations in the southern sky, I hope ASTE will yield valuable results which will contribute to ALMA.

The Subaru Telescope has been trying to reduce its dependence on the main telescope contractor, resulting in lower cost for the long-term maintenance of the telescope and its enclosure. As part of these efforts, the main shutter of the enclosure has been successfully repaired by Yokogawa System Buildings Corp. Moreover, the Subaru Telescope has invited two new Vice-Directors, who assist the duties of the Director, from Mitaka Campus to reinforce its management structure.

In this way, each observatory is attempting to upgrade and streamline the existing facilities. This year we aim to establish this trend in the entire organization to generate more scientific results and reinforce new development projects.

The fourth point is about “utilization of the technological assets of NAOJ.” Last year, we established the Industrial Liaison Project Office, whose mission is to apply the cutting-edge technologies accumulated in NAOJ to uses in wider society under the slogan “Bringing astronomy tech into your home.” These days, a growing number of VIPs are visiting NAOJ to see our technology development and we often receive comments like: “I didn't know that NAOJ has such wonderful technologies. If you advertised them to the industrial community, you could probably increase their utilization.” This year, we need to consider how we can carry out industry-academia collaboration, and to formally put the plan into practice. I am hoping that every staff member involved in development activity will think about how their technologies can be applied to industry or consumer products.

I would like to say in closing that NAOJ’s most important mission in 2020 is to get the TMT project on track. I am afraid that the suspended construction of TMT in Hawai'i may negatively affect the overall operation of NAOJ. The Working Group on Large Scientific Research Projects of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) has provided a critical assessment on the TMT project, and the budget for the next fiscal year is pretty tight.

On the other hand, as I said above, NAOJ has accumulated remarkable scientific and technological achievements, and will continue to do so in the future based on these accomplishments. We also should not forget to steadily advance other existing and new projects, not just TMT. While this is a difficult situation NAOJ has never experienced before, we are determined to confront and overcome these difficulties using all of our resources and our valuable assets.

January 6, 2020
Dr. Saku Tsuneta