Taking an astrometric telescope to Antarctica to close in on the mysteries of how galaxies are born

Public Relations Office        October 24, 2019

Overcoming challenges and rushing toward construction

<center>Naomasa Nakai</center>

Naomasa Nakai

Naomasa Nakai Professor, School of Science and Technology
Born in Toyama Prefecture. Graduate of the Department of Physics, School of Science, Kwansei Gakuin University; completed the Masters Program in astrophysical science at the Graduate School of Science, Nagoya University; Completed the Class 1 Doctoral Program of the Department of Astronomy, School of Science, University of Tokyo. Research Fellowship for Young Scientists of Japan, Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS); Professor and Director of Radio Astronomy Research Division, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ); Director of NAOJ Nobeyama Radio Observatory; Professor, Department of Astronomy, Graduate Programs, School of Science, University of Tokyo; Professor of Doctoral and Master's Programs in Physics, Graduate School of Pure and Applied Sciences, University of Tsukuba. Became Professor of School of Science and Technology, Kwansei Gakuin University in April 2018. May 2008 -March 2019: Visiting Professor, National Institute of Polar Research Recipient of the 42nd Nishina Memorial Prize and 2008 Japan Academy Prize. Research interests include observational study of galaxies and star formation, research of galaxies, the distant universe, black holes, and Antarctic astronomy.

 When the School of Science and Technology at Kobe Sanda Campus is restructured in April 2021, a new department of physics and cosmology will be established in the School of Science. Professor Masumichi Seta, who specializes in radio astronomy, Professor Shuji Matsuura, who specializes in infrared astronomy, and Professor Junko Hiraga, who specializes in X-ray astronomy, all of whom were appointed in 2015, were joined by Professor Naomasa Nakai (Antarctic astronomy), who has been described as the preeminent researcher of black holes, in 2018. These specialists in astronomic observation, all of whom have experience working as researchers at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), have come together in advance of the new department’s establishment. Research in anticipation of the future has begun. We called on Professor Naomasa Nakai, who is leading the research.

  ‘Antarctica is crucial for the development of astronomy in Japan. We have to do this. It is overwhelmingly the best environment on Earth for astronomic observation. The atmosphere there is like nowhere else.’ Professor Naomasa Nakai of the School of Science and Technology is talking emphatically about the Antarctic Terahertz Telescope project that he has been working on for some 15 years since his time as a Professor at the University of Tsukuba.

 The aim of the project is to build a parabola antenna-like telescope with a diameter of 10 m on high ground, 3,800 m above sea level near “Dome Fuji,” Japan’s Antarctic research station. Temperatures there can fall to as low as –80ºC. Because moisture in the air freezes and falls, there is little water vapor in the air, and there is a high percentage of fine-weather days. Very faint electromagnetic waves from outer space can be captured easily, making it possible to observe terahertz waves with a wavelength of 0.3 mm, which even the high-altitude telescopes in Hawaii and Chile have difficulty observing, and submillimeter waves, which have slightly longer wavelengths.

 What we want to solve with our observations from the South Pole is the mystery of faraway galaxies that cannot be seen with visible light. Newborn galaxies accumulate large quantities of gas, which generate infrared rays and electromagnetic waves. With visible light, only 10–30% of all of the galaxies that have been predicted in theory have been discovered. The only way to observe the remaining galaxies is to use terahertz waves and submillimeter waves for observation and analysis, even if they cannot be seen with optical telescopes. That analysis helps researchers to estimate when and how a galaxy was born. Professor Nakai says that they will be able to discover the mechanisms of evolution, the distance to the galaxy, and even the existence of black holes and when they were born.

 However, these observations will require the researchers to live in Antarctica in frigid conditions for several months. They will also need food, supplies, generators, and fuel for the generators. There are also technical challenges, such as transporting the precision telescope on a snowmobile and building the telescope, which weighs 100 tonnes, on a soft snowfield. The construction will cost more than 2 billion yen. In recent years, instead of waiting for research funding to be granted, the researchers have been thinking about how to attract funding, including donations. They have been placing considerable efforts into increasing understanding of the construction. This has included traveling around the country, holding lectures for the general public to collect signatures, and using crowdfunding to source funds to put toward part of their research costs. In reality, they are preparing for their observations by taking 30-cm diameter terahertz telescope, which is already operational, to the Antarctic.


 Professor Nakai was born in Johanamachi (today’s Nanto City) in Toyama Prefecture. He was the type of child who would scoop water out of the nearby river and put it under a microscope so he could observe the insects. His first encounter with astronomy was as an elementary school student, when he received a telescope with a 3-cm diameter. He built his own platform for it and used it to look at the moon and the planets. ‘I lived deep in the countryside, where you needed a torch to walk outside at night. The Milky Way was beautifully visible in the sky.’ When he reached junior high school, his science teacher secretly let him use the school’s telescope, so he would spend his evenings gazing out at the night sky.

 After graduating from the Takuma National College of Technology (Kagawa Prefecture), he transferred to the School of Science at Kwansei Gakuin University. After graduation he did post-graduate study at Nagoya University and the University of Tokyo, after which he joined a project for the establishment of a telescope at the NAOJ Nobeyama Radio Observatory in Nagano Prefecture. He was one of the main Japanese players in the ALMA project, a collaborative team of Japanese, American, and European researchers in Chile’s Atacama Desert in the Andes. In April 2018, he returned to Kwansei Gakuin University after retiring as Professor of the University of Tsukuba (under a cross-appointment arrangement, 10% of his current title is still Professor of the University of Tsukuba). He spends about a week at the NAOJ Nobeyama Radio Observatory with his students, where they observe the radio telescope, which has a diameter of 45 meters, analyze the observational data sent from the ALMA telescope in Chile, and conduct other research. He is also engaged in observations and research using large antennae located around Japan and overseas.

 In his observations of the students he has taught, including those at the Universities of Tokyo and Tsukuba, he says that there is a noticeable number of students who are only chasing results. ‘I think that those students who engage wholeheartedly in the content of the research for its own sake will be able to do better work once they graduate.’ Based on his own experiences, he also believes that studying at various different universities will broaden one’s horizons. Alongside his research, after feeling that prospective students who sit for the university entrance exams need to be thanked, he has discussed it with his colleagues, other lecturers, and is pursuing preparations to send thank-you letters to those candidates who fail the entrance exam. He hopes to get this project up-and-running for the Physics Department next spring.

 Meanwhile, in a bid to convey the significance of the school motto that he learned and made a part of himself as a student himself many years ago, in December last year, he delivered a lecture for students in the Physics Department, entitled, “Mastery for Service - the strongest philosophy for always doing excellent work.” In the lecture, he conveyed to the students the significance of “studying hard and becoming a person who will make other people happy,” and stressed that “this will give meaning to life and allow you to live your own life.” He plans to deliver a similar lecture this autumn as well.

 ‘Will you help us set up the telescope and make it the Kwansei Gakuin Antarctic Campus?’ This is what he is sincerely asking anyone who will listen.