National Astronomical Observatory of Japan

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

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Everyone, happy new year of the Rabbit.

Like last year, 2022 felt a large impact from the novel coronavirus. Under the “With Corona” dual work style of telework and commuting, face-to-face conferences and such have started to return, although often in an online-hybrid style, and the number of onsite guests is also increasing. As hoped, the number of overseas visitors and official visits increased as soon as border restrictions were relaxed, indicating a high level of international interest in NAOJ.

The big news in the astronomy world was the start of science observations by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) launched in 2021 through the efforts of by NASA, ESA, and others. JWST is delivering results at an astonishing pace, such as the discovery of a galaxy candidate object at 13.5 billion years ago. Some of JWST’s planned observations are based on results from ALMA and the Subaru Telescope operated by NAOJ and the young researchers leading these activities are stretching their wings.

In May 2022, the international “Event Horizon Telescope” which connects 8 observing facilities around the world to capture images of black hole shadows, released an image of Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. ALMA again played an important role in these observations. I would like to recognize the pioneering spirit of the Japanese researchers including young researchers who contributed to this project, connecting world radio antenna facilities at an unprecedented high frequency.

It is safe to say that one of the highlights of 2022 was the first mission in the Artemis Program to take humanity back to the Moon. Beyond the establishment of a Moon base backed by an international collaboration including Japan, a future is unfolding which also promises astronomy observations from the lunar surface. Astronomy is no longer a field that can be pursued within a single country. Particularly in times of world instability like the present, we have high expectations for the advancement of international collaboration to solve many of the mysteries of the Universe.

In order to do this, the observing environment must be preserved. In 2022, the “National Conference of Starry Sky Towns and Blue Sky Towns,” (星空の街・あおぞらの街 全国大会) was held in Tokyo for the first time with the 34th meeting hosted by Mitaka City. This conference is held in different locations each year to raise awareness of the need to preserve the atmospheric environment and to help promote regional revitalization by utilizing the local environment. To strengthen our ties to Mitaka City, known as “a Town with an Astronomy Observatory,” we delivered a welcome speech by the NAOJ Director General and a report on the Regular Stargazing Parties held in Mitaka Campus. Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado, who attended the conference, also toured the Mitaka Picture Book House in the Astronomical Observatory Forest (三鷹市星と森と絵本の家) and enjoyed celestial body observations with a high sensitivity camera attached to the 50 cm Telescope for Public Outreach. She showed a knowledge of astronomy, asking questions about things like Charles Messier’s comet investigations.

Twenty-four years after the start of observations, Subaru Telescope was relaunched in April 2022 as “Subaru Telescope 2.0.” Improving even more on the world-leading wide field-of-view capability, it will investigate the fundamental questions shared by all of humanity about the history of the Universe, focusing on the four main themes of dark energy, the large-scale structure of the Universe, multi-messenger astronomy, and extrasolar planets. One of the new instruments which will play a major role in Subaru Telescope 2.0 is the wide-field multi-object spectrograph, Prime Focus Spectrograph (PFS). During test observations in September 2022, it passed milestones including taking its first spectrum. Commissioning is ongoing. Observations in the Subaru Strategic Program using the ultra-wide field-of-view camera Hyper Suprime-Cam (HSC) continue to produce bountiful results. Subaru Telescope 2.0 is expected to continue leading world astronomy.

ALMA has also continued to be successful. The image of the protoplanetary disk around the young star HL Tauri captured by ALMA in 2014 has had a major impact on researchers in the field. In 2022, the number of citations to that report exceeded 1000, proving that it is a breakthrough discovery which has enabled major advances in our understanding of planet formation.

The long-anticipated ALMA 2.0 project, to use the high resolution and high sensitivity of ALMA which enabled this kind of superb results with wider observing frequency bands, will start in 2023. It is intended to be an end-to-end operation to advance Japanese and world astronomy, from the development of wide-bandwidth receivers in the Advanced Technology Center, to the onsite operation of the telescopes in Chile, to support for users in the East Asian region.

In the Division of Science, multi-wavelength observations and theoretical research are blending together organically to produce a variety of scientific results. In 2022, collaboration with theory and simulation gained momentum, and we hope to see even greater interactions in 2023.

In the TMT Project, onsite construction is on hold following local protests in Hawai`i in 2019, but the TMT International Observatory (TIO) Project Manager has relocated to Hilo Hawai`i. Together with NAOJ staff, first and foremost (NAOJ TMT) Project Director Usuda, he has been engaging in a direct dialog with more than 300 people including local people opposed to TMT. Through activities like tutoring at the schools serving the local area, we are working to build a sincere relationship with the community, including Native Hawaiians.

In Hawai`i a new “Mauna Kea stewardship and oversight authority” has been established to address the reconciliation of Native Hawaiian culture and the management of the mountain, an issue transcending just TMT. This marks a new direction for governance in Hawai`i.

The US-ELT (United States Extremely Large Telescope) Program, including the Thirty Meter Telescope TMT, is on track to receive US federal funding. In July 2022, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) began preparing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the construction site and initiated the consultation process under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. In August a series of fruitful meetings were held on the Island of Hawai`i.

The Preliminary Design Review (PDR), needed for the NSF to secure a long-term budget for the construction, began in November of the same year. At the first meeting, TMT received a high evaluation and was deemed ready to proceed to the Final Design Review. This result is thanks not only to the important contributions by NAOJ employees in Hawai`i, California, and Mitaka, but also the very advanced technological capabilities of Japanese manufacturers.

We are also working to improve the TIO governance. I have been named the Vice Chair of the TIO Board of Governors, and am leading discussions on weighty matters at Board of Governors meetings. In addition, Prof. Masayuki Akiyama of Tohoku University has been appointed as the Chair of the TMT Science Advisory Committee, and NAOJ employees, first and foremost NAOJ TMT Director Usuda, are taking on leadership roles in TIO in close cooperation with the TIO management.

Overall, 2022 was a year where the plan for moving forward was clarified, and 2023 will be a year of steady progress on that plan leading to the resumption of onsite construction and full-scale manufacturing in Japan.

Sixteen years after its launch, the solar observation satellite Hinode is continuing to observe the Sun leading up to the next maximum in the solar activity cycle. The solar observation satellite Solar-C will further advance the investigation of the mysteries of solar flares and the hot solar corona conducted by Hinode. At JAXA the Mission Definition Review and Project Preparation Review were completed in 2022 and the SOLAR-C Pre-Project Team was officially launched. NAOJ is continuing work to develop its primary observing instruments, aiming for a launch in the late 2020’s.

Also in space-borne astronomy research the JASMINE Project, to reveal the structure and history of the Milky Way Galaxy and search for extrasolar planets through ultra-high-precision infrared astrometry, is progressing. The characteristics JASMINE will be able to observe were clarified by tracing the evolution of stars and gas in the Milky Way using the dedicated astronomy supercomputer “ATERUI II,” operated by the Center for Computational Astrophysics, to outline changes in star formation activity and the structural evolution of the Milky Way. Preparation is continuing steadily on the various astronomy topics to be tackled by JASMINE.

We anticipate that by developing NAOJ's ability to provide vital components with JAXA science missions like these, young researchers will be ready to participate in next generation NASA and ESA missions in the 2030’s as a major partner.

In addition, novel initiatives are returning results. Two young researchers dispatched to the Institute of Statistical Mathematics of the Research Organization of Information and Systems are engaged in research to elucidate the history of the Milky Way and the Universe by applying deep learning AI and advanced analysis techniques to the data for the very large number of galaxies imaged by Hyper Suprime-Cam (HSC) on the Subaru Telescope and the very large number of stars observed by ESA’s Gaia. In this era where AI research and applications are spreading far beyond science, AI and statistical analysis are becoming indispensable tools for processing the Big Data produced by instruments and supercomputers. We expect the use of AI to unlock the great potential of modern astronomy.

In 2022 Nobeyama Radio Observatory celebrated its 40th anniversary. From 2022 a new policy of charging for observation time has been implemented. It also needs to be mentioned that development is proceeding favorably for a new flagship instrument which will employ seven beam elements and three receiver bands. This past Autumn it succeeded in producing its first radio map. We look forward to future results.

Mizusawa VLBI Observatory is receiving support from IWATE NIPPO CO., LTD. (a news media company). Researchers have been appointed to fulfill the dual roles of conducting research at the observatory and writing astronomy articles. Crowd funding was conducted in the Spring and based on that success it was decided to hire additional research faculty. Such diverse funding sources are being utilized in Mizusawa to strengthen research capabilities. Researchers there are proposing a new scenario to explain the velocity distribution in the jet emanating from the supermassive black hole of the elliptical galaxy M87 seen in KVN (Korean VLBI Network) data.

At the Seimei Telescope, for which the open use is administrated by the Okayama Branch of Subaru Telescope, a second instrument, a high-speed, multicolor camera, began operation and has been conducting research which would be impossible at other facilities, such as the discovery of high-speed, rapidly-rotating, near-Earth asteroids within hours of beginning observations and the investigation of their origin. This year a high dispersion spectrograph for investigating extrasolar planets is scheduled to start operation. Operation of the 188-cm telescope which started in 1960 is currently suspended due to a breakdown of the dome slit last September. This is an important telescope which has discovered extrasolar planets through long timeframe observations, and is still active on the forefront of astronomy, as well as contributing to the local community through activities like the continuing program of stargazing parties by the host city of Asakuchi. We want to begin the recovery process as soon as possible.

Also in 2022, Ishigakijima Astronomical Observatory, a unique facility which pursues educational and outreach activities in concert with the local government along with observational astronomy research using the Murikabushi Telescope, changed to a charged admission policy in order to improve the safety and security and enhance its services. The operation of the telescope has been suspended since June due to damage from a lightning strike, but recovery work is underway. In the future we expect to see active participation in OISTER (Optical and Infrared Synergetic Telescopes for Education and Research) and research on the Starlink satellites of the American company SpaceX for techniques to reduce light pollution.

In the Advanced Technology Center, as a spinoff of ALMA superconducting mixer development, proof of concept experiments are now underway for the super-low-power-consumption amplifiers for quantum computing as part of JST’s Moonshot research and development program. The 3D metal printer has succeeded in mass producing the corrugated horns needed for the ALMA Band 1 receivers being developed through collaboration led by the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Taiwan. I believe this is the first time 3D printed metal parts have been used in a large observational instrument. Expectations are high for 3D printing, with the potential to realize novel observational instruments which can’t be realized through conventional manufacturing.

At KAGRA, the Large-scale Cryogenic Gravitational Wave Telescope led by the Institute for Cosmic Ray Research of the University of Tokyo with the participation of NAOJ and the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization KEK, preparation is underway to participate in the next coordinated international observing run O4 scheduled to start from March 2023. Already the Fabry-Perot Michelson interferometer has been successfully locked and achieved better observational sensitivity than before at low frequencies. I hope that KAGRA detects its first gravitational wave during the O4 observing run.
The frequency-dependent squeezing which has been demonstrated at TAMA300 and the production of high-quality sapphire mirrors are proceeding favorably. NAOJ intends to continue contributing to gravitational wave astronomy in the future, most notably, we have started collaboration with the Einstein Telescope, the European 3rd generation gravitational wave telescope project.

This year will see the long-awaited launch of ESA’s JUICE (Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer) probe mission with participation by NAOJ’s RISE Project which aims for research of interior structure and evolution of solid bodies including the Moon, other natural satellites, and asteroids. JUICE will map the topography of Jupiter’s moon Ganymede. We look forward to seeing Ganymede’s history and true face unmasked when a precise relief map of its surface is made possible by data from the Ganymede Laser Altimeter (GALA).

Last year we were reminded of the importance of international good will and cooperation. The International Astronomical Union’s Office for Astronomy Outreach (IAU-OAO) established in the Public Relations center marked its 10th anniversary. The staff increased from two people to three, and under the slogan “Astronomy for All” they are making Japan a dispatch office for promoting astronomy outreach and international collaboration in countries around the world. In addition, the Office of International Relations has worked to improve its homepage summarizing useful information for overseas visitors to NAOJ. Executive Advisor to the Director General Sekiguchi has taken over as our representative to the East Asian Observatory and will work with the various partners in East Asia.

In addition to being known for our cutting-edge research, NAOJ is also esteemed for our collection of historical documents. Seigaku Shukan, a series of books compiled mainly from letters exchanged between the Tenmonkata (official shogunate astronomer) and an astronomy instrument developer, was registered as Important Cultural Property in Japan. It has been recognized as valuable reference material for understanding the state of celestial object observations and ephemeris research in the late Edo Period.

There are many examples like this where a great work is recognized only after a long time has passed. The Big Data produced by modern astronomy observations is being preserved and utilized at NAOJ, primarily through the efforts of the Astronomy Data Center. With the ongoing explosion in the volume of data, they are working hard to not just store the data, but also release it in an easy-to-use form. We appreciate their ingenuity and hope that this astronomy data will be recognized as a valuable reference by current and future researchers.

Finally, last year new executives were appointed. Vice-Director General Yoshida, who has long experience in Hawai`i, Director of Research Coordination Motohara, who has long experience at a university, together with Vice-Director General Saito and Director of Engineering Uzawa are bringing in new blood and fresh perspectives. Last December, the NAOJ Future Planning Symposium 2022 was held with great success, introducing an actionable long-term plan and discussing what path we need to take in the next plan to reflect the collective will of the Japanese astronomy community. In the current unstable world situation, it is not easy to see ahead to the future, but I hope that all NAOJ employees, together with everyone in the community, will be able to contribute to society through the development of astronomy.

January 5, 2023
Dr. Saku Tsuneta