The Japan Astronomical Observatory’s black hole hunters are urgently seeking funding

After budget cuts, black hole hunters at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan are turning to fundraising.

Gathering funds to observe black holes

The Mizusawa VLBI Observatory of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ), located in Ôshû, Iwate Prefecture, plays an important role in efforts to unravel the mysteries of black holes. Honma Mareki, the observatory’s director, was part of the team for the Event Horizon Telescope, a set of radio-synchronized observatories stationed on the planet’s surface, which in 2019 released the historic image of a black hole at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy.

In recent years, however, the observatory has seen its public funding dwindle, raising concerns about Japan’s black hole research. The Mizusawa Observatory decided to take matters into their own hands and set up a fundraising page in the hope of raising 10 million yen (€70,000). It is the first time that an OANJ has used an alternative form of financing to raise money.


In this time-lapse image, stars swirl in the sky above radio telescopes at the Mizusawa Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) Observatory (© Iijima Yutaka/Mizusawa VLBI Observatory)

Honma says Mizusawa’s funding setback is part of a larger trend of the state withdrawing its support for scientific research amid a slowing economy and weak growth prospects due to Japan’s shrinking population. The observatory saw its fiscal year 2020 budget cut in half from the previous fiscal year, which was all the more shocking to Honma since the cut came right after his triumph with the Event Horizon Telescope team.

The historic photo of the black hole at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy.  (© Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration)
The historic photo of the black hole at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy. (© Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration)

Founded in 1988, OANJ is an inter-university research institute that plays a vital role in promoting research in astronomy through open use of its facilities. However, Honma notes that given the budgetary priority given to maintaining observatories and other facilities, recent cuts have affected employment and state-funded research projects at OANJ sites.

To seek other sources of funding, Mizusawa Observatory researchers opened their fundraising page on April 20. They opted for an all-or-nothing campaign, where all money raised will be returned to donors if they don’t reach their goal by the June 17 deadline. The response exceeded all expectations and the amount of donations greatly exceeded the original goal. Honma says the money will be used to finance the training of the next generation of astronomers, whose mission will be to push even further the unraveling of the secrets of black holes.

The black hole in the galaxy M87 and a jet of subatomic particles (© Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration/EAVN Collaboration)
The black hole in the galaxy M87 and a jet of subatomic particles (© Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration/EAVN Collaboration)

Find young scientists looking up to the sky

The image published in 2019 by the Event Horizon Collaboration proved the existence of black holes. At the Mizusawa Observatory and elsewhere, scientists are now working to enrich their knowledge of the behavior of these mysterious celestial objects, particularly by digging into the theory that, as they rotate, they emit jets of particles that move at high speed. .

Every new discovery about how the universe works fascinates the public, but Honma warns that the current budget situation puts Japanese black hole research at risk. Almost all of the funding for OANJ facilities comes from public funds, and Honma finds that the cuts have led to the trimming of important programs.

Honma says that after 2020 and the first tranche of budget cuts, Mizusawa staff realized that if they did nothing, the radio telescope network could very well stop working. This eventuality shocked both the scientists and the local community, which was resolutely in favor of the observatory.

This outcome was certainly avoided, but the cuts nevertheless deprived the facility of its ability to offer research positions to young astronomers. Instead of giving up, the team set out to find alternative forms of fundraising and, on the advice of various people, decided in 2021 to try fundraising.

Scientists check whether the devices are working properly at the Mizusawa Observatory.  (© OANJ Mizusawa VLBI Observatory)
Scientists check whether the devices are working properly at the Mizusawa Observatory. (© OANJ Mizusawa VLBI Observatory)

According to Honma, as long as public funds cover the observatory’s operating costs, the money from fundraising will be used to finance a postdoctoral research position. “In Japan, the majority of postdoctoral research positions in astronomy have disappeared,” he explains. “We have no one in Mizusawa. It’s worrying because there is no longer anyone who can pass on the skills needed to study black holes. He points out that even with 10 million yen in donations, it will be a big challenge to maintain a single postdoctoral position, but he remains hopeful that the observatory will be able to attract a young researcher on board, provided it receives an additional influx of funds. “Of course, we want to make the most of the money we have available . Investing in future generations is essential if we are to ensure the sustainability of black hole research and other areas of astronomy. »

Faced with the possibility of the state cutting funding further, Honma says such a scenario would have catastrophic consequences. “It would seriously hamper the study of astronomy in Japan, tarnish its appeal to budding scientists, and send the field into a downward spiral,” he warns. “Without young researchers looking up to the sky, the future of Japanese astronomy is bleak. »

Discoveries like the black hole M87 grab the headlines, but Honma points out that such breakthroughs are the result of painstaking research, and that scientists have to collect and sift through a mountain of data before they come across something new. “The data we collect feeds a large number of scientific endeavors,” he says. “On closer examination, data that initially seemed innocuous lead to new breakthroughs. That’s what makes this field so fascinating. But he warns that further funding cuts would have a major impact on Japan’s ability to contribute to this process .

The next frontier for black hole research

Honma sees initiatives like the Event Horizon Telescope as key to helping the public better understand black holes and build interest in the area. As scientists delve into questions like why objects rotate or how beams of subatomic particles are emitted, he predicts that the resulting discoveries will give their authors the crowning glory. A Nobel Prize, just like three black hole researchers, in 2020. “It is a topic that is talked about a lot at the observatory, and I encourage young researchers to aim for this goal in their work. »

The response to the Mizusawa Observatory’s fundraising campaign gives Honma and her colleagues hope. “It shows that at some point you can ask the public for help with other projects,” he says. Mizusawa’s groundbreaking initiative is a new and promising model for funding basic scientific research in Japan and training future generations of scientists.

Honma Mareki (center) and her colleagues from the Mizusawa Observatory.  (© OANJ Mizusawa VLBI Observatory)
Honma Mareki (center) and her colleagues from the Mizusawa Observatory. (© OANJ Mizusawa VLBI Observatory)

(Banner photo: radio telescopes at the VLBI Mizusawa Observatory. © VLBI Mizusawa Observatory. From broadcast on Prime Online May 6, 2022)

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