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The Infrared Astronomical Satellite AKARI and Nikon

The Infrared Astronomical Satellite AKARI and Nikon

Interview with Professor Hiroshi Murakami

On February 22, 2006, the infrared astronomical satellite ASTRO-F was launched by the M-V rocket No. 8 from the Uchinoura Space Center located in Kagoshima Prefecture, southern Kyushu, Japan. After successfully entering its initial orbit, ASTRO-F was renamed “AKARI” meaning “light” in Japanese. AKARI is Japan’s first satellite dedicated to infrared astronomy. The spacecraft orbits the Earth once every 100 minutes at an altitude of about 700 km. The purpose of the AKARI mission is to survey the entire sky in infrared light. In addition, AKARI will also perform detailed observations of selected astronomical objects.

Nikon was responsible for AKARI’s 68.5 cm-aperture reflecting telescope. An important feature of this telescope is that the mirrors are constructed from a new material, silicon carbide (SiC). On this occasion we interviewed Professor Hiroshi Murakami, project manager for the AKARI mission at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, about the significance of this new infrared All-Sky Survey, and the design and operation of AKARI.

Remaking the map of the infrared sky for the first time in 20 years
What is the objective of the AKARI (ASTRO-F) mission?
The AKARI infrared astronomical satellite, launched in February 2006 (artist's impression)

The AKARI infrared astronomical satellite, launched in February 2006 (artist’s impression)

The purpose of AKARI (ASTRO-F) is to create a map of our Universe, for the first time in more than 20 years, using infrared light. In 1983, the world’s first infrared astronomical satellite IRAS*1 was launched to carry out a pioneering infrared all-sky survey. The resulting database of infrared astronomical objects—essentially a map of the Universe—obtained from the IRAS observations motivated many subsequent observations from optical light, radio waves to X-rays, and contributed enormously to the innovation of astronomy. However, as one would expect, after 20 years, the IRAS database is no longer up to the task of serving as the basis for cutting-edge astronomy. For present-day astronomical observations, people may ask what has happened to the infrared—the map that is still used now is two decades old and shows neither faint astronomical objects nor the fine details and structure in brighter objects. Accordingly, the latest technology and research have been devoted to rectifying this situation by conducting high-sensitivity and high-precision infrared observations.

Why use infrared astronomy?

Infrared astronomy, began in 1960s, is a very important branch of astronomy. However, since most of the infrared radiation from space is absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere, it is difficult to make observations from the ground. Although large telescopes such as Subaru are effective, there are still many limitations to earthbound observations. Therefore, in order to observe the entire sky clearly, using long-wavelength infrared light, the only realistic option is to launch a telescope above the Earth’s atmosphere into space. However, infrared observations from space have lagged behind those of X-ray and optical astronomy, because of the many technical challenges such as high performance infrared sensors required and the necessity for cooling equipment. Japanese astronomers have been considering space infrared observations since the late 1970s, and our first small mission was realized in 1995*2. Thereafter, many of the various technical problems associated with infrared observations from space were resolved, and the ASTRO-F project was born.

At that time, plans were already afoot in Europe and the United States for infrared astronomical satellites that would observe small areas of the sky to great degrees of precision. In Japan, we boldly decided to use the ASTRO-F mission to create a rejuvenated map of the entire sky, using high-sensitivity instruments to establish a legacy and basis for subsequent observations with future telescopes.

In the following 10 years, we solved the various technical issues, and now finally we can be proud to have launched our very own satellite dedicated for infrared observations.

“Atmospheric windows” and AKARI's target observation wavelengths

“Atmospheric windows” and AKARI’s target observation wavelengths
Although most of the light from space is blocked by the Earth’s atmosphere, some limited range of wavelength, such as visible light, short wavelength infrared light and radio waves, can penetrate through these “atmospheric windows”. The target of AKARI’s observation is infrared radiation with wavelengths over the range of 2–180 μm. The longer part of this wavelength range, the so called “far-infrared” light, is almost completely absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere, and thus can only be observed from space.

*1. IRAS (InfraRed Astronomical Satellite)
A joint project by NASA in the USA, NIVR in the Netherlands, and SERC in the UK. IRAS observed approximately 96% of the entire sky in 1983. It was equipped with a reflecting telescope of aperture 60 cm (effective aperture 57 cm) with a focal length of 5.5 m.
*2. IRTS (InfraRed Telescope in Space)
Japan’s first space infrared telescope with an aperture of 15 cm onboard the SFU (Space Flyer Unit), which was launched in March 1995 by an H-II rocket. The satellite was retrieved by the space shuttle in January 1996.

Infrared observations essential to astronomy?better sensitivity and resolution
What is the AKARI (ASTRO-F) satellite?
AKARI before launch was known as ASTRO-F.

AKARI before launch was known as ASTRO-F.

AKARI is a satellite dedicated for infrared observations. It is equipped with a Ritchey-Chr?tien reflecting telescope with an effective aperture of 68.5 cm (the diameter of the primary mirror is 71 cm) and a focal length of 420 cm. The AKARI focal plane encompasses two main instruments, the two-channel, four-band Far-Infrared Surveyor (FIS)*3 and the InfraRed Camera (IRC)*4 comprising of one near- and two mid-infrared channels. The number of pixels for the infrared sensing devices range from 75 pixels (for the FIS) to 200,000 pixels (for the IRC). These numbers are very low compared to the latest digital cameras. However, they represent a quantum leap forward compared to the IRAS satellite, which consisted merely of rows of a few tens of individual sensor elements.

The telescope and observation equipment are completely enclosed within a cryogenic container (cryostat) similar to a vacuum flask (known as a cryostat), connected to a cooling system. This “mission module” is mounted on a “bus module”, which controls the satellite’s attitude and handles communication to and from the Earth. Cylindrical in shape, the satellite stands approximately 3.7 m high, is 1.9 m in diameter, and has a total weight when launched of 952 kg—making AKARI roughly the same size and weight as a compact car.

Left: Inside the cryostat  Right: The infrared telescope

Left: Inside the cryostat
Right: The infrared telescope

How have sensitivities and resolutions improved since the IRAS era?

As a space telescope, the improvement is not so apparent—the IRAS satellite had a 60 cm telescope, whereas AKARI has an aperture of 68.5 cm. This is due to constraints of the cargo size and weight limitations of the launch rocket. The telescope system is also quite similar to ground-based telescopes. Since the principal objective of AKARI is to conduct an all-sky survey, the intention behind the optical design is to allow high-quality imagery over a wide field of view (or viewing angle). By improving the optical accuracy of the primary and secondary mirrors, the resolution of the AKARI observations is about one order of magnitude better than that of the IRAS observations. Similar development in infrared detector technology has also produced improved sensitivities.

As a result, fainter, more distant astronomical objects become visible, and their composition can be seen in much finer detail. Astronomy using infrared radiation has various aims. Some researchers wish to see how entire galaxies are formed on global scales, while other researchers endeavor to seek out individual stars being born within a galaxy. More precise size measurements and other data on asteroids within our Solar System are being obtained by observing them in infrared rays. Whereas X-rays are used to observe certain specific astronomical objects under extremely high temperatures, and observations at optical wavelengths are most often used for objects such as fixed stars and bright galaxies, infrared light is used to observe the low-temperature gas of outer space itself, which constitutes the greater part of the volume of our Universe. It is thus a significant step in astronomy that such widely used fundamental data are being revisited with 10 times higher resolution and better sensitivity.

Far-infrared images of the IC4954 reflection nebula (wavelength 90 μm)

AKARI/Far-Infrared Surveyor (FIS)
AKARI/Far-Infrared Surveyor (FIS)

IRAS image (100 μm)
IRAS image (100 μm)

Mid infrared images of the IC4954 reflection nebula (wavelength 9 μm)

AKARI/InfraRed Camera (IRC)
AKARI/InfraRed Camera (IRC)

IRAS image (12 μm)
IRAS image (12 μm)

The precision of AKARI is an order of magnitude greater than that of the IRAS images.
Images (left) captured with the AKARI far infrared surveyor (FIS), and AKARI Near- and Mid Infrared Camera (IRC), and IRAS images (right).

*3. Far-Infrared Surveyor (FIS)
The instrument for far-Infrared observations onboard AKARI. The detector is made of Gallium doped Germanium crystals. Observations are carried out in four wavelength bands using two types of infrared detector: a 100-pixel detector for wavelengths of 50–110 μm and a 75-pixel detector for wavelengths of 110–180 μm. The FIS has been developed by Nagoya University, JAXA, National Astronomical Observatory and other collaborative institutes. The far-infrared detectors were developed in collaboration with the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology.
*4. InfraRed Camera (IRC)
An instrument for wide-field imaging observations at near- and mid-infrared wavelengths that consists of three separate cameras. Large format infrared array detectors are used. The observer can select the observing wavelength by switching the filters of the cameras. The IRC has been developed by the University of Tokyo, JAXA and other collaborative institutes.
The world's first mirror made out of silicon carbide
What specific technical problems do observations in infrared light involve?

Infrared radiation is emitted from any object that has heat. If the telescope and instruments are warm, they emit infrared light that would interfere with the observations of faint objects in the sky. For this reason, both the telescope and all the observational instruments onboard AKARI are housed within a cryostat and are cooled to an absolute temperature of as low as 6K (−267°C) using liquid Helium. Since AKARI was manufactured at normal room temperatures, the actual operating temperatures in space will differ by 300°C. Therefore, the following challenges had to be overcome in order for the telescope to operate properly at these cryogenic temperatures:

  1. The development of a material that would enable the telescope to observe to a high degree of accuracy, even in harsh environments where the temperature undergoes significant changes and variations.
  2. Improvements in the efficiency of the cooling equipment so as to maintain these cryogenic temperatures.
  3. Attitude and orbit control that would avoid heat from the light of the Sun and radiation from the Earth.

Tell us about the new material used in the primary mirror.
The silicon carbide primary mirror (71 cm in diameter, approximately 11 kg in mass) after surface finishing. The underside has a honeycomb structure.

The silicon carbide primary mirror (71 cm in diameter, approximately 11 kg in mass) after surface finishing. The underside has a honeycomb structure.

Using silicon carbide for the primary mirror of AKARI’s telescope fulfilled the first of the three requirements. This was the first time that this material had ever been used in the construction of a mirror for a space telescope. As well as being light and robust, silicon carbide undergoes virtually no thermal expansion with temperature (that is, it has a low coefficient of thermal expansion). However, adopting this new material led to a succession of difficulties. A primary mirror of the same size made out of glass would weigh at least 200 kg. However, for AKARI, the initial target weight was 9 kg, which was relaxed in practice to 11 kg. It proved very challenging to manufacture the silicon carbide (which is a ceramic) to this size. It was also reportedly very difficult to process silicon carbide into a concave mirror.*5 In addition, trouble also arose when the mirror was actually installed.*6 Subsequently, the launch was postponed by approximately 18 months.

Silicon carbide mirrors will likely become the mainstream for future space-borne telescopes, both for astronomical and Earth observation purposes, because of the advantages of their lightweight, robust properties and resistance to temperature change. At present, it is still beyond our technical grasp to manufacture 10 m size mirrors in this material, although a 3.5 m mirror is already being build for the telescope of ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory*7, which will be the largest silicon carbide mirror.

Was the original plan to conduct one year of observations at cryogenic temperatures?

Cooling space instruments requires a great deal of ingenuity. For example, IRAS used 600 liters of liquid Helium for cooling over the course of its ten-month mission. AKARI only carries 170 liters (roughly a quarter of the IRAS amount). A pair of Stirling cycle cryocoolers, which are capable of cooling down to an absolute temperature of 20K (−253°C) in space, are operated to preserve the liquid Helium.*8 This has enabled an 18-month mission lifetime at the cryogenic temperature (the initial plan called for at least 550 days).

The cryostat is a pressure-tight container and before the launch it is covered by a lid to create a vacuum inside to prevent any heat from the outside reaching the telescope. However, since the lid, made of aluminum, is itself warmer than outer space (which is around 3K), it also emits infrared radiation and thus consumes the liquid Helium. This lid was supposed to have been promptly jettisoned as soon as the satellite was in space.*9 However, due to unforeseen and unconnected difficulties that arose just after launch, the jettisoning of the lid and the commencement of the observations were delayed for about a month.*10 As a result, it was feared that there was significantly less liquid Helium available for the rest of the mission than originally planned. Fortunately, later measurements confirmed that the liquid Helium lifetime was almost the same as originally planned, with even the worst-case prediction concluding that it would be possible to continue observations under cryogenic conditions for at least a year.

Even when the liquid Helium has expired, one of the cameras on the IRC instrument (covering the shortest wavelength range), may be able to continue observations, while being cooled solely by the Stirling cycle cryocoolers alone. It is not known how long AKARI can continue observations with this camera, since it is actually the first ever satellite to be equipped with such mechanical coolers with high cooling power (in fact very few satellites have been fitted with their own cryocoolers). Therefore, almost without realizing it, we have found ourselves at the forefront of space cryogenics technology.

*5. Comment by Nikon
The process of refining the mirror was complex and time-consuming, as it involved creating a certain shape (a second-order aspherical surface) and then polishing it using diamond powder. Proper polishing with such a hard and fine substance allows the manufacture of high precision reflecting mirrors that can be used not only for long-wavelength infrared observations, but also for shorter-wavelength observations, such as those used for optical and ultraviolet telescopes. Even for Nikon, the development required for the manufacture of this primary mirror presented an enormous challenge. Nikon will make full use of the experience acquired with AKARI as it engages in the manufacture of even higher-precision optical instruments.
*6. Comment by Nikon
A metal (a special alloy) with a coefficient of thermal expansion similar to that of silicon carbide was used for the component that secures the primary mirror to the structure of the telescope. However, at cryogenic temperatures it displayed properties different from those of ordinary materials, which caused problems in cryogenic temperature experiments. Accordingly, a new metallic material was chosen, and analysis and sample testing was conducted, after which the component for securing the primary mirror was redesigned and remanufactured. Ultra-low-temperature experiments were then carried out once more. Since this component was intended for use in a cryogenic temperature environment, it was necessary to go through the laborious process of cooling it with liquid Helium while measuring its characteristics and strengths and testing the finished item.
*7. The Herschel Space Observatory
The Herschel Space Observatory is a space telescope that the European Space Agency (ESA) is planning to launch in 2008. Equipped with a silicon carbide primary mirror with an aperture of 3.5 m, it will observe the Universe using the far-infrared and sub millimeter wavebands from 60–670 μm.
*8. Liquid Helium
The Helium used on AKARI is super-fluid liquid Helium (Helium 4), which has a unique liquid viscosity of zero.
*9. Comment from Professor Murakami
The section of wire that locked the cryostat lid tight shut was cut using explosives propelling the lid far from the main body of AKARI using spring power. In principle, waste material should not be discarded in space under normal circumstances, as space debris is a problem. However, under the current technical constraints it is extremely difficult to live up to this ideal. I believe that in the future it will be possible to dispense with liquid Helium entirely and to cool using only the cryocoolers. In this case, the lid can be left at a normal temperature on Earth and then cooled once the satellite has entered space. Hence, the lid will simply play the role of a dust cover making it possible to open and close it (obviating the need to discard it).
*10. Comment from Professor Murakami
For reasons that were unclear immediately after the launch, two built in solar sensors, which are designed to maintain the satellite’s attitude, were apparently somehow obscured, making safe attitude control difficult. With the lid open, if by any chance, the telescope inadvertently pointed at the Sun, the delicate observational equipment would be destroyed. While AKARI’s internal software was rewritten and other steps were taken to address this situation to allow safe operation without the need to use the solar sensors, the lid had to be left in place.
A Sun-synchronous polar orbit to maintain the cryogenic temperature
Is there also ingenuity in AKARI’s orbit?

Heat is the nemesis of infrared observations. In terms of heat sources in space, the Sun obviously springs to mind; however, the Earth is in fact also a tremendous source of heat. As well as reflecting light from the Sun, the Earth also emits large amounts of infrared radiation. If AKARI’s telescope were to point at the Earth, not only would the sensitive observational instrumentation be dazzled, but the cooling system would also sustain irreparable damage. AKARI follows a so-called Sun-synchronous polar orbit, which runs close to the boundary between the Earth’s night and day. Since the direction of the Sun is always perpendicular to the orbital plane, placing solar shields and solar battery panels on the appropriate side of the satellite affords protection from the heat of the Sun.

Schematic diagram of a Sun-synchronous polar orbit, showing the relative positions of AKARI and the Sun

Since the satellite is orbiting in such a way that it continuously points away from the Earth, the aperture of the telescope sweeps around in a great circle, allowing observation of the entire sky from North to South Pole. After six months of orbiting in this fashion, following the Earth’s rotation, the satellite will have been able to observe every inch of the sky—which is why a Sun-synchronous polar orbit is so well suited for an all-sky survey mission. Incidentally, the Moon is also a significant source of heat (and therefore infrared radiation) and although if the telescope were to pick up the Moon, it would not cause the same irreparable damage to the instrumentation or cooling system that capturing the Sun or the Earth would; the infrared sensors would become saturated (dazzled) and nothing would be visible until the Moon has moved far away from the focus. Since, during the survey, it is not possible to observe the area of the sky around the Moon, the telescope will be pointed at the same area of the sky six months later, to fill in any survey “holes.”

Schematic diagram of a Sun-synchronous polar orbit, showing the form of the AKARI All-Sky Survey
Is the All-Sky Survey going smoothly?

The satellite was launched in February 2006, and after some performance test operations, the All-Sky Survey commenced. The first scan of the sky (Phase 1) was completed at the beginning of November 2006, and the second scan of the sky (Phase 2) immediately began thereafter.

As well conducting the All-Sky Survey in the scanning mode operation, AKARI also has a pointed (staring) observation mode, for observations of specific astronomical objects over an extended period of time. The maneuver between the survey mode and the pointed observation mode is driven by reaction wheels onboard the spacecraft rather than the attitude control propulsion jets (or thrusters) that are often employed on satellites.*11 Although the satellite can burn propellant and achieve jet propulsion, this process produces various complex compounds such as ammonia and the resulting gases could pollute the inside of the telescope as they drift along with the satellite. Previous experiments conducted in 1995 with the SFU, indicated that this should not pose a problem over short observation periods of about one month, however, for longer observation periods such as that of AKARI, it was decided that the thrusters would be used as little as possible.

Attitude control in pointed observation mode

Another solution for avoiding the heat from the Earth is to follow an orbit that lies far from the Earth. Currently, NASA’s infrared Spitzer Space Telescope is carrying out pointed observations in such an orbit.*12 However, the long distance from the Earth makes both the launch and propulsion of the satellite much harder. For a scanning telescope like AKARI, a near-Earth Sun-synchronous polar orbit is sufficient and indeed ideal.

*11. Reaction wheel
The rotation of a heavy disk (flywheel) or rotor is sustained at a uniform rotational frequency using electrical power from the solar batteries. The satellite’s direction, known as its “attitude,” is changed using the reaction caused by briefly speeding up and slowing down the speed at which the wheel rotates. AKARI is equipped with four such reaction wheels.
*12. The Spitzer Space Telescope (SST)
An infrared telescope with an aperture of 85 cm, launched in August 2003 by NASA in the USA. To protect it from the heat of the Earth, Spitzer was put into a heliocentric (Sun centered) orbit, in which it follows the Earth along its orbit. Spitzer carries 360 liters of liquid Helium for cooling purposes.
In search of the origin of galaxies, stars and planets
When were you most nervous?
Installing AKARI (ASTRO-F) into the nose of the M-V rocket

Installing AKARI (ASTRO-F) into the nose of the M-V rocket

When the satellite was launched on the JAXA’s M-V rocket. Although the M-V rocket is a proven vehicle, this was the first time that it had been used to put a satellite into a Sun-synchronous polar orbit, and when I watched the launch for real at Uchinoura Space Center, my heart was in my mouth.*13 However, I was glad that we were able to use the M-V rocket. As the rocket vibrates heavily at launch, we adopted various countermeasures starting right from the design phase for AKARI. That was possible since the rocket itself was developed at Sagamihara. We were able to go over to consult for fine-tuning of the rocket-satellite interface and resolve problems immediately. When the rocket is on site, it is easier to load a satellite onto a stable solid-fuel rocket.

Considering that AKARI is the first dedicated Japanese infrared astronomy satellite, it is working remarkably well. We are putting great effort into the day-to-day work of acquiring data and uploading commands to AKARI. At the same time, perfecting the necessary highly efficient data analysis software is a major task. At the moment, with what has been achieved so far, it feels like peeking through a small hole into a treasure chest of accumulated raw data.

When will the results become available?

It is predicted that AKARI will run out of liquid Helium in mid 2007. At that point, the observation phase at the cryogenic temperature will end and efforts will shift to in-depth data analysis. After a further year, in 2008, the aim is to construct a comprehensive database of the coordinates and brightness of infrared astronomical objects over the entire sky, optimally to resolutions which are an order of magnitude better than the IRAS observations obtained more than 20 years ago. Over a period of a year we will use this database ourselves, optimizing both the products and the analysis. The data will then be published to the world, incrementally, beginning with the brightest astronomical objects. If possible, eventually we would like to publish the data in image form; although in all honesty, prior to the launch of AKARI it was uncertain whether it would be possible to convert the data into images, and so it was never guaranteed that any image data would be published. When we did experiment with the conversion of data into images, the results appeared to be of excellent quality. Thus, we anticipate that we will also be able to publish image maps of the sky.

Far-infrared image of the Large Magellanic Cloud

Far-infrared image of the Large Magellanic Cloud AKARI/Far-Infrared Surveyor (FIS)
False color composite from images at 65 µm, 90 µm, and 140 µm

Near- and mid-infrared image of the Large Magellanic Cloud

Near- and mid-infrared image of the Large Magellanic Cloud AKARI/ Infrared Camera (IRC)
False color composite from images at 3 µm, 7 µm, and 11 µm

The latest results of observations by AKARI
Far-infrared and near-and mid-infrared images (above) show the area around the Large Magellanic Cloud

Following the initial data release, we plan to proceed with the data analysis of the fainter infrared astronomical objects and correspondingly revise the database. We too have an avid interest in how galaxies came into being in the ancient Universe, and how they evolved to take on their current form, the types of environment in which stars are formed, and the process by which stars are born. AKARI will also open research into the state of partially formed planetary systems, and the physics of the gas and dust in outer space. AKARI will produce comprehensive databases opening many avenues of research and allow researchers all over the world to make use of the fruits of AKARI’s observations. We anticipate this work and research moving full steam ahead.

The development of the AKARI mission required more than an ability in astronomy and optics—it also required fundamental technical capabilities in such areas of expertise as cryogenic temperature material engineering. Although numerous approaches and tenders were made by other companies regarding the development of the telescope, we judged without any doubt that Nikon had the best vision. I believe that, in addition, this project entailed considerable risk for Nikon, since on top of the fact that a completely new material, silicon carbide, was used for the primary mirror construction, in the course of the cryogenic temperature material engineering analysis and experimentation alone, we had Nikon manufacture several hundred different types of materials and structural samples. Working within a limited budget, Nikon pushed itself to the limit. I believe that, thanks to this effort, AKARI has turned out to be a lightweight and compact satellite that will continue to demonstrate its outstanding capabilities over a long period of time.

*13. The M-V rocket
The largest solid fuel rocket in the world. A three stage rocket weighing approximately 1,800 kg with low orbit launch capability. It was first used to launch the radio astronomy satellite HARUCA in 1997. AKARI was launched using M-V rocket No. 8. In September 2006, the rocket was used for the last time ever, for the launch of the solar observation satellite HINODE.

  • The images used were provided by JAXA.
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Posted September 2007

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