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From proof-of-concept to solving astronomical mysteries

SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research is moving. In 2021, the Utrecht branch will settle in South Holland. Assistant professor at TU Delft, Akira Endo leads a project that builds a state-of-the-art instrument for astronomical research. ‘SRON is the key to go from proof-of-concept to a science-grade instrument that that can make actual astronomical discoveries!’

From universe to chip

‘At TU Delft I already collaborate a lot with people from SRON and Leiden University’, Endo starts of. ‘The collaboration is the foundation of our research.’ The assistant professor from Delft has a unique interdisciplinary background. After obtaining his PhD in astronomy in Tokyo, he spent five years as a postdoc at the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience at TU Delft. At the same university, he currently has a tenured position at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering. He and his team are working on DESHIMA, an instrument that aims to study radio waves with a very short wavelength from dusty, massive starburst galaxies in the early universe.

The DESHIMA chip. Photo: David Thoen

In order to detect such extremely weak signals, they built a sensor that is only a few centimetres large. This so-called superconducting spectrometer is now being built onto a chip. ‘So, the light from very distant galaxies travels all the way through our Universe, is collected by our telescope and focused on a minuscule sensor on a chip’, Endo says. ‘The realization of such an on-chip spectrometer has become possible with the world-leading technology of the group of Jochem Baselmans at SRON and the THz Sensing Group from the TU Delft.’

Collaboration is key

The project originates from a series of discussions between Jochem Baselmans, Teun Klapwijk (TU Delft) and Paul van der Werf (Leiden Observatory) and Endo himself. 'This could be seen as a tripoint of astronomy, instrument science and solid state physics,' he says. Our project is a nice result of people from the three institutes directly collaborating with each other from the very beginning.’ Thanks to his positive experience, Endo looks forward to the move and the fact that the ‘golden triangle’ of SRON, TU Delft and Leiden will become tightened more closely together: 'When SRON comes to Zuid Holland, I expect that the direct interaction between especially young astronomers, physicists and instrument scientists will spark many more ideas like DESHIMA that require an interdisciplinary mindset and environment.' In this, the direct link between cutting edge technology from Delft and the astronomical knowledge from Leiden is of main importance. ‘SRON is the key to go from proof-of-concept to a science-grade instrument that that can make actual astronomical discoveries!’

Education of interdisciplinary researchers

Although it does make things a lot easier, just being on the same campus won’t be enough, according to Endo. 'I think that the success of the move of SRON will depend critically on the education of young people,' he says. 'We all know that putting different experts in the same building is insufficient to stimulate interdisciplinary research. In addition to the experts in each field, you require people who play the role of a catalyst, who understand the methodology of both worlds.'

In order to educate such people, Endo teaches the master course 'THz astronomical instrumentation' at the faculty of Electrical Engineering in TU Delft, together with Baselmans and Jian Rong Gao (SRON/TU Delft). 'Furthermore, I find the Astronomy and Instrumentation master specialisation in Leiden, and the Casimir Research School excellent initiatives to combine the strengths of Delft and Leiden. SRON coming to Zuid-Holland will bring students in direct contact with cutting edge space technology development. The key aspect will be how to naturally integrate astronomical science, instrument science and engineering into a coherent education programme that encourages students to actively learn without borders.'

Endo (centre) with researchers from SRON, TU Delft, NAOJ en the University of Tokyo, after the successful installation of the DESHIMA cryosat in the cabin of the ASTE telescope in Chili. Photo: Robert Huiting (SRON), bottom right
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