On Friday, the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) signed an agreement to collaborate in all aspects of astronomy. The partnership will increase both parties’ competitive edge when pursuing grants and projects. It also will have symbolic importance as a commitment to international cooperation.
“Science is a competitive sport,” UTSA astronomy and physics professor Chris Packham said. Having a strong team is crucial.
One of the most exciting projects is the possible construction of instruments for the Thirty Meter Telescope, one of the largest ever built. The telescope will likely be located in Hawaii. The top of the Mauna Kea volcano is currently home to the Japanese Subaru telescope and several more of the world’s most advanced telescopes.
The Thirty Meter Telescope will eclipse all of these. The collaboration between UTSA and NAOJ puts both institutions in good position to win a bid to construct some of the instruments of the telescope under the joint leadership of Packham and his colleagues in Japan.
Packham’s research on the nature of distant galaxies earned UTSA a $387,214 grant from the National Science Foundation to observe the black holes devouring matter at the core of certain galaxies. As stars and planets orbit the black holes they are shredded, giving off massive amounts of energy as their disintegrated bits fall into the black hole.
“What we want to understand is why this is happening, how this is happening and what influence it has on the formation of the galaxy that hosts the black hole,” Packham said.
In 2018, the James Webb Space Telescope, the more powerful successor of the Hubble telescope, will allow Packham’s international team to see even further, without having to overcome Earth’s atmosphere. Until then, land-based telescopes in Chile, Spain, and Hawaii have been the team’s primary tools.
The Thirty Meter Telescope would allow the team to see as far as the new James Webb Space Telescope, but with higher color fidelity.
The construction of the telescope, should the team win contracts, will create opportunities for UTSA and San Antonio science professionals throughout the 10 years it will take to complete.
The Thirty Meter Telescope is comprised of 492 elements, and will cost a total of $1.5 billion. Advances in astronomy often translate into advances in other fields, such as global positioning systems (GPS). What seems to be far from our everyday lives has led to some of our most useful tools of the digital age.
“Astronomy can be esoteric, but there can be down-to-earth benefits,” Packham said.
The telescope itself would also involve collaboration with teams from Canada and India as well Japan. The UTSA and NAOJ collaboration agreement extends beyond the telescope, hopefully opening up more grants and research opportunities.
International partnerships have cultural benefits as well. U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) has championed the collaboration as a way to strengthen ties with Japan. Packham credits Castro’s encouragement as the impetus for the memorandum of understanding (MOU) to be signed Friday.
Through the partnership with NAOJ, Packham hopes to increase the diversity and international presence on the UTSA campus. Student exchanges would provide excellent opportunities for young scientists to expand their understanding of international cultures and customs, ultimately making them more well-rounded citizens and scientists.
The international focus and the opportunity to engineer instruments for the telescope advance mission of UTSA’s Department of Physics and Astronomy aims to provide students with a background in physics and problem-solving skills, and to equip students with valuable research experience.
“It’s always got to come back to the students,” Packham said.
Packham, whose life-long love of astronomy began as a child in Southern England, appreciates the universal partnership of astronomy. We are all, quite literally, sharing the same sky, and occupying the same small piece of a massive universe. He calls it a “beautifully international field” and celebrates its unifying power in this particular time in history.