May 24, 2024

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A new observatory in Chile – the highest in the world – aims to reveal the origins of planets, galaxies and more

A new observatory in Chile – the highest in the world – aims to reveal the origins of planets, galaxies and more

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Tokyo Atakama University Observatory (TAO) on Cerro Chajnantor Peak. Credit: 2024 TAO Project

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Tokyo Atakama University Observatory (TAO) on Cerro Chajnantor Peak. Credit: 2024 TAO Project

How do planets form? How do galaxies evolve? In the end, how did the universe itself begin? A unique astronomical observatory, which researchers hope will reveal some of the biggest mysteries, will open on April 30, 2024.

At 5,640 metres, the University of Tokyo Atacama Observatory (TAO), built on top of a desert mountain in northern Chile, is the highest astronomical observatory in the world, which gives it unparalleled capabilities, but poses some new challenges.

Astronomers will work harder than ever to get a better view of the universe. Going back hundreds of years, some of the first lenses for telescopes were made to bring the sky closer to the Earth. Since then, there have been optical telescopes with mirrors the size of buildings, radio telescopes with antennas extending between mountaintops, and even a space telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, far beyond the moon. Now, the University of Tokyo has opened another pioneering telescope.

TAO is finally operational after 26 years of planning and construction. It is officially the highest observatory in the world and has been awarded a Guinness World Record in recognition of this fact. The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) radio telescope is located in the Atacama Desert in Chile, not far from another prominent observatory frequently used by astronomers from Japanese institutions. But why does TAO have to be so high, and what benefits and disadvantages does this factor provide?

“I seek to elucidate the mysteries of the universe, such as dark energy and the first primordial stars. For this, you need to see the sky in a way that only the Tao can,” said Emeritus Professor Yuzuru Yoshii, who led the study. TAO project for 26 years as principal investigator since 1998. “Of course, it has state-of-the-art optics, sensors, electronics and mechanisms, but it is the unique high altitude of 5,640 meters that gives TAO such clarity of vision. At this altitude, there is very little humidity.” In the atmosphere to affect infrared visibility.

“Construction on Cerro Chajnantor was incredibly challenging, not only technically, but also politically. I coordinated with indigenous people to ensure their rights and opinions were taken into account, with the Chilean government to obtain permission, with local universities for technical cooperation, and even the Ministry of Health.” Chilean team to ensure that people can work at this altitude in a safe way, and thanks to everyone involved, the research I have been dreaming of can soon become a reality, and I could not be happier.

At 5,640 metres, the summit of Cerro Chajnantor, where Tau is located, allows the telescope to be above most of the humidity that might limit its infrared sensitivity. Credit: 2024 TAO Project

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At 5,640 metres, the summit of Cerro Chajnantor, where Tau is located, allows the telescope to be above most of the humidity that might limit its infrared sensitivity. Credit: 2024 TAO Project

The incredible height of the TAO makes it difficult and dangerous for humans to work there. The risk of altitude sickness is high, not only for construction work, but even for astronomers who work there, especially at night when some symptoms are worse. So the question is: is all this effort and expense worth it? What types of research will you provide to the astronomical community, and thus human knowledge?

“Thanks to its altitude and arid environment, TAO will be the only ground-based telescope in the world capable of clearly seeing mid-infrared wavelengths. This region of the spectrum is very good for studying the environments around stars, including planetary formation regions,” said Professor Takashi Miyata, director of the observatory. Atacama Institute of Astronomy and Observatory Construction Director.

“Also, since the University of Tokyo manages the TAO, our astronomers will have full access to it over long periods of time, which is essential for many new types of astronomical research that explore dynamic phenomena that are impossible to observe with infrequent observations from Joint telescopes Professor Miyata added: “I have been involved in TAO for more than 20 years as an astronomer, and I am already very excited. The real work in making observations is about to begin.”

There is a wide range of astronomical questions to which TAO can contribute, so researchers will have different uses for its uniquely distinguished instruments. Some researchers even contribute to TAO by developing tools specific to their needs.

“Our team has developed the Simultaneous Wide-field Infrared Multi-Object Spectrometer (SWIMS), an instrument that can observe a large area of ​​the sky and observe two wavelengths of light at the same time. This will allow us to efficiently collect information on a variety of Masahiro Konishi: “Analysis of SWIMS observational data will provide insight into the formation of these galaxies, including the evolution of supermassive black holes at their centers.”

Professor Konishi continued: “New telescopes and instruments naturally help advance astronomy. I hope that the next generation of astronomers will use TAO and other ground-based and space-based telescopes to make unexpected discoveries that challenge our current understanding and explain the inexplicable.” .

Given the relative availability of the TAO, it is expected that more young astronomers will be able to utilize it than with previous generations of telescopes. As a next-generation telescope, TAO can provide emerging research talent with the opportunity to express their ideas in ways that were not possible before.

“I use various laboratory experiments to better understand the chemical nature of organic dust in the universe, which can help us learn more about the evolution of materials, including those that led to the creation of life. Better astronomical observations of the real thing can help us learn more about the evolution of Materials, including those that led to the creation of life, said graduate student Riku Seno: “The more accurately we can reproduce what we see through our experiments on Earth, it can help us greatly when we observe organic dust in the infrared range. “Medium”.

“Although in the future I will be able to use TAO remotely, I will be on-site to help build our specialized instrument, the Multi-Field Mid-Infrared Imaging for Peering into the Unknown Universe (MIMIZUKU). TAO is located in a remote area that I was not able to access.” “Visiting it is part of my daily life, so I'm really looking forward to spending some time there.”

As time goes on, there is no doubt that current and future astronomers alike will find more and more ways to make groundbreaking observations using the TAO. The team hopes that the features that make it so new – remote operation, highly sensitive instruments, and of course the fact that the high-resolution telescope was successfully developed to operate in a low-pressure environment – ​​will inform and inspire designers. Engineers and researchers who contribute to astronomical observation facilities everywhere.

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