Planetarium in Japan displays Chilean night sky in real time

Newly opened astronomy exhibit in Tokyo projects images of Chile’s star-filled skies sent every ten minutes from the Atacama Observatory.

Traditionally, Tokyo residents would have to fly over ten thousand miles to witness the wonders of northern Chile’s night sky. Now the star filled views are on their doorstep.

The planetarium in the science hall of the capital’s Galaxcity cultural center has taken the innovative step of beaming images from the University of Tokyo Atacama Observatory (TAO), situated 18,500 ft (5,600 m) atop Cerro Chajnantor in the Atacama desert, and displaying them on a giant 80 ft (25 m) domed ceiling.

Galaxcity’s new exhibit, which opened April 1, is the brainchild of Yoshihiro Yamada, an advisor at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Astronomy. Yamada had visited the Atacama Observatory several times, and wanted to share the stunning views with his countrymen.

“The air pressure that high at the Atacama Observatory is only half that of sea level,” Yamada told The Asahi Shimbun newspaper. “Although this region is not suitable as a place to live in, this is the best site for monitoring the night sky. I hope the Japanese will enjoy the pristine views.”

More than 350 children attended the opening of the exhibit, and the lectures that are given during the presentation are geared toward educating youth about our universe and the field of astronomy.

«It was great!” eleven year old elementary student Fujiwara Makoto told The Asahi Shimbun. “The planetarium has really improved. I want to come back sometime!»

Images recorded at the Atacama Observatory are sent to a server computer at the University of Tokyo in Japan, after which Galaxcity downloads them and projects them in a large dumbbell shaped image across the dome of the planetarium. Slanted viewing seats are set up across the floor where visitors lay back and take in the stunning views.

The journey time of the image from the observatory to the dome is very short; those in Tokyo see the sky from atop Cerro Chajnantor only ten minutes after the astronomers in Chile.

Japanese astronomy has shared a close relationship with Chile for several years now. TAO was established in 2009, and at that time was the world’s highest altitude observatory. A significant amount of funding for the ALMA telescope in northern Chile was provided by Japan, and several of the country’s foremost astronomers spend observation hours in Chile.

Due to its almost non-existent humidity and clear skies, northern Chile is the world’s premier location for astronomy. Chile is home to almost half the world’s telescope infrastructure, and this is set to increase to over two thirds in the next decade.