Japan Searches Beyond Our Solar System . . .

Looking for New Worlds in Deep Space

Japan's Akari Infrared Observatory in Space

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A false-color infrared image by the Subaru Telescope of the ORION NEBULA (Messier 42) 1,500 lightyears from Earth. The group of four bright stars at the center of the image are known as the Trapezium. Many bright spots around the Trapezium are young stars embedded in the Orion molecular cloud behind the Orion nebula. Above the Trapezium, a butterfly-like red feature is the Kleinman-Low (KL) nebula deeply embedded in the Orion molecular cloud. At the center of the KL nebula is a forming star named IRc2. It may be 30 times more massive than our Sun. Blue, faint, diffuse emission over the entire region is hot gas ionized by ultraviolet radiation from the Trapezium stars. [Click the image for an enlarged 77k picture]

Japan's huge new Subaru Telescope is the world's largest telescope using a single mirror. The optical infra-red telescope, with its enormous, delicate 8.3-meter mirror, is positioned at the 13,796 ft. summit of the giant volcano Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The Subaru saw its "First Light" on January 28, 1999.

Operated by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ), the $350-million Subaru Telescope can peer farther out than ever before from Earth's surface into some of the darkest corners of the universe.

Subaru is the Japanese word for the Pleiades star system, known to astronomers as the Seven Sisters.

Not only is Sabaru the world's largest infra-red telescope, it has the world's largest one-piece reflective mirror. It is a huge 26.9 ft. (8.2 meters) in diameter, yet only 7.9 inches (20 cm) thick, the mirror has more or less the same proportions as a contact lens.

Of course, images can be distorted by a mirror of that size so the Subaru is mounted on a computer-controlled support that has 261 small motors with screens and sensors -- actuators -- that push and pull the mirror to the right shape as needed. That lets the telescope detect clearly faint objects in remote areas of the Universe.

The telescope building is cylindrical, rather thana dome, so it can resist the wind. The mirror is adjusted by two parallel computers 100 times a second to counteract atmospheric turbulence, which would create twinkling stars.

On the volcano. The Subaru's precision mirror was polished for three years at the Corning Glass Works in New York state. It was trucked to Pittsburgh, loaded on a barge and floated down the Ohio River to the Mississippi, then down river to New Orleans. The mirror crossed the Gulf of Mexico on a larger ship, went through the Panama Canal, and crossed the Pacific to Hawaii where it was placed on a trailer hauled up the side of Mauna Kea. The journey lasted six weeks.

The mirror arrived at the observatory in November 1998, joining an elite group of international observatories atop Mauna Kea, including Keck 1 and Keck 2, listed in the 1998 Guinness Book of World Records as the world's largest. Their primary mirrors are composed of 36 segments and total 10 meters (32.8 feet) in diameter.

Mauna Kea is enjoyed by astronomers because it offers 325 nights a year of perfectly clear star-gazing and possibly the cleanest air on Earth. It is a one-hour drive up from Hilo, the nearest city, from tropical climate to snow-capped peak. At the top of the mountain is a clutch of observatories manned by astronomers from the United States, Britain, France, Canada, the Netherlands and Japan.

First Light. Astronomers refer to the first use of a telescope -- the first time light is reflected in its mirror -- as First Light.

The Sabaru's first actual observations began on Jan. 4, 1999. They created a number of spectacular images including photos of the planets Saturn and Jupiter, the Orion Nebula, the Trapezium, Orion's KL Region, star clouds in the Andromeda galaxy, a Seyfert 1 spiral galaxy known as NGC 4051, the Hickson Compact Group 40 galaxies near each other, the Abell 851 galaxy some five billion lightyears from Earth, and the most-distant known quasar, labeled SDSS J033829.31+002156.3, some 14 billion lightyears away.

Some First Light Photos by Japan's Sabaru Telescope:

     The ORION NEBULA KL REGION is the area of space around the Kleinman-Low nebula in the Orion cloud 1,500 lightyears from Earth. This image by the Subaru Telescope shows light emitted by warm molecular hydrogen gas. At the center of the butterfly-like feature is IRc2, a forming star 30 times more massive than our Sun. A strong solar wind with a speed of more than 100 kilometers per second is blowing out from IRc2, evacuating the butterfly-shaped cavity and allowing infrared light to escape. The finger-like strucutres shoot out from the Orion KL region are produced as the IRc2 stellar wind collides with surrounding cold material.

[Click the image for an enlarged 114k picture]

     ABELL 851 is a very faraway cluster of galaxies also known as CL0939+47. Astronomers find galaxies strewn unevenly across the Universe. They tend to bunch up in structures ranging from groups of a few galaxies to massive clusters containing thousands of galaxies. Abell 851 is a really larg cluster five billion lightyears away from Earth. It's about two million lightyears across. Compare that with our nearest big galaxy --Andromeda or M 31 -- which is two million lightyears away from Earth with mostly empty space in between. That's the same volume of space in Abell 851, which is filled with many galaxies displaying a wide range of colors and sizes. Just about anything you see in this photo is a galaxy. Astronomers find bright red elliptical galaxies in all clusters contain, but distant clusters such as this also have faint blue galaxies. This color image was composed from optical and infrared images taken with Subaru' s Suprime-Cam and CISCO cameras. Astronomers wonder if the Universe contains enough material to stop its present expansion. If so, most clusters would have been formed very recently. On the other hand, a large numbers of old distant clusters would suggest gravity is insufficient to stop the expansion of the Universe.

[Click the image for an enlarged 125k picture]

     The ANDROMEDA GALAXY -- also known as Messier 31-- is a vast cloud of hundreds of billions of stars. A spiral galaxy similar to our own Milky Way galaxy, Andromeda is 2.5 million lightyears away from Earth, yet one of our nearest neighbors. This photo, shot through a red filter on the Subaru Telescope's Suprime-Cam optical camera equipped with six 2048x4096 CCDs, shows a tiny part of Andromeda. The many points of light are individual stars. The bright region running from the lower-left to upper-right is part of the galaxy's spiral structure, where many young stars are shining brightly. The window pane effect is caused by gaps between the CCD chips.

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     The Subaru Telescope observed an object known as PG1115+080 in which a distant quasar, some ten billion lightyears away from Earth, is behind a much closer galaxy some three billion lightyears away from Earth. With this alignment, light can take multiple routes from the quasar to Earth and many images are seen. The left image is a combination of optical and near-infrared images showing four bright images of the quasar around a central red galaxy which is acting as a lens. The right image shows faint extended light suggestive of a ring which is expected when the source and lensing galaxy are closely aligned. Einstein's Theory of General Relativity predicted the gravitational pull from massive objects would be able to deflect rays of light. Astronomers say they can use the relative brightness and position of the individual images in a gravitationally-lensed system to determine how rapidly the Universe is expanding and whether it will continue to expand forever, or if it eventually will slow down and collapse.

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     Single isolated galaxies actually are rare in the Universe. Galaxies tend to clump together. A system of two galaxies is a binary galaxy. A system containing more than two, but less than several dozen, is called a group. An even bigger system is called a cluster. And then there are groups of clusters known as superclusters. Often, in groups of galaxies, the members are in so small a space that they are appear to be touching each other. These are called compact groups of galaxies. This Subaru Telescope photo shows the Hickson Compact Group 40. HCG is a tightly knit clump of galaxies about 300 million lightyears away from Earth in the constellation Hydra. It has its name because it is the 40th group in Hickson's catalog. From top to bottom, the five galaxies in the group are a spiral, an elliptical, two more spirals and a lenticular (S0). They clearly appear to be touching each other. Galaxies this close together have an effect on each other. A tidal interaction can be seen among the three spiral galaxies. The lenticular galaxy at the bottom seems to have an interaction at its nucleus. These five galaxies probably will merge to form one or two giant galaxies. The two blue-white dots in the photo are stars in our own Milky Way galaxy. The small red objects are galaxies billions of lightyears farther away. They appear red because of the Doppler effect caused by the expansion of the Universe.

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     NGC 4051 is a spiral galaxy 35 million lightyears away from Earth in the constellation Ursa Major. It has been classified by astronomers as a Seyfert 1 galaxy because of its bright non-stellar nucleus. NGC 4051 is among the six classical Seyfert galaxies studied by the astronomer Carl Seyfert in 1943. Its nuclear activity is the lowest among Seyfert 1 galaxies. NGC 4051 is intermediate between a barred galaxy and an unbarred galaxy. Three spiral arms emerge from the ends of a weak bar. This Subaru Telescope picture reveals numerous regions along the sprial arms where hot ionized clouds of hydrogen gas are forming new stars. The window pane effect is caused by gaps between the CCD chips.

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     The arrow points to the MOST DISTANT QUASAR at Z=5.0. Quasars are the most energetic objects known in the Universe. They can outshine entire galaxies. Quasars probably are powered by extraordinary black holes weighing more than a billion Suns, yet are not much larger than our Solar System. The extreme luminosity of a quasar makes it easy to see at great distances. The quasar at the center of this photo, taken by Subaru's infrared camera CISCO, is known as SDSS J033829.31+002156.3. It turned up in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and is thought to be the most distant currently known at 14 billion lightyears from Earth. That makes it one of only a handful of objects to be seen at the edge of the Universe. We see those faraway objects at their time when the Universe was only one billion years old -- compared with its present age of 15 billion years -- because of the time it has taken the light to reach us. As the Universe expands, distant objects appear to be moving away from us rapidly and Doppler shift causes us to see light from this quasar at a frequency six times lower than that at which it was emitted. Therefore, although this image was taken by infrared camera, we actually are looking at ultraviolet light from the quasar. Astronomers speculate that such massive objects formed soon after the Big Bang because they were in dense regions of the early Universe. It is believed that galaxies should be forming in the space around distant quasars. The faint, red galaxies in this image are much closer to us.

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     JUPITER and SATURN. Jupiter, at left, is the largest planet in our Solar System. Its diameter is eleven times larger than Earth. This Subaru Telescope photo shows a complex feature of time variable bands, running parallel to the equator. The famous Great Red Spot is the elliptical feature at the bottom right. The Great Red Spot diameter is twice that of the planet Earth. The black spot in the lower center in front of Jupiter is the moon Ganymede, the third Jovian satellite. Ganymede looks dark because its reflectivity (albedo) is small compared to that of the planet Jupiter. Saturn, at right, is the second largest planet in our Solar System with a diameter nine times that of Earth. The Subaru Telescope photo shows time variable bands running parallel to the equator, similar to those on Jupiter, but simpler. The diameter of Saturn's rings is 2.26 times larger than the planet. The rings include three major ringlets known as A, B, and C rings from outside to inside. The C ring is too faint to be seen in this photo. The gap between rings A and B is the Cassini Division.

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Japan's Akari Infrared Telescope in Space:

JAXA artist's concept of Japan's Akari, formerly known as Astro-F, infrared astronomy observatory in space.
Japan's Astro-F infrared astronomy observatory was launched February 21, 2006, on a three-stage solid-fuel M-5 rocket from the Uchinoura Space Center near Kagoshima on the southern tip of Kyushu Island.

In orbit, the satellite was renamed Akari, which means light.

Akari will spend 18 months using its 27-inch aperture telescope to conduct an all-sky survey of energy received at infrared wavelengths.

The satellite's working lifetime is controlled by the amount of liquid helium it has stored on board. Some 45 gallons are necessary to chill the telescope and science instruments to six degrees Kelvin. That's -450° Fahrenheit, near absolute zero. The helium should last about 550 days.

The super-cold temperature increases the sensitivity of the instruments. After the liquid helium is exhausted, mechanical coolers will allow some observations to continue for five years.

Peering through dust. The new satellite will detect infrared light arriving at Earth from as many as 10 million objects scattered across the Universe.

Akari will look through thick clouds of cosmic dust that hide newborn stars from visible-light telescopes down on Earth. It also will study:
  • brown dwarf stars not big enough to begin fusion and become a full-fledged star.
  • active star-forming galaxies. Up to 10 million may be in range.
  • extra-solar planetary systems, disks of dust around stars within 1,000 lightyears of Earth.
  • previously undetected comets, maybe as many as 50.
Akari will extend the work completed some two decades earlier by the old Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS). The IRAS infrared observatory was a project of the United States, United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

IRAS conducted the first comprehensive infrared survey. Akari will improve upon the IRAS sky map by one order of magnitude.