New telescope reflects Japan's scientific debut overseas

$400 million instrument may become most powerful

September 19, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MOUNT MAUNA KEA, Hawaii -- In a mountaintop ceremony bringing together a Japanese princess and members of the Hawaiian royal order wearing crimson robes, Japan inaugurated on Friday what many astronomers expect will soon prove to be the world's most powerful land-based telescope.

Experts who gathered under a dazzling sun at the 13,796-foot summit of Mount Mauna Kea, Hawaii's tallest mountain, said the 26.9-foot instrument, known by the Japanese name for the constellation Pleiades, or Subaru, would help propel Japan from astronomical obscurity into the highest echelons of space-observing nations.

Many said the $400 million telescope was the first time that Japan had spent so heavily on a scientific project overseas. They said it represents a scientific coming out for a nation whose scientific efforts have been devoted mostly to domestic well-being since its defeat in World War II.

That the event took place in Hawaii, where a Japanese aerial attack on Pearl Harbor brought about the United States' entry into war in 1941, resonated strongly with the symbolism of Japan's reconciliation and close alliance with the United States.

The U.S. ambassador to Japan, Thomas Foley, alluded to this in his remarks at the ceremony. Using the original Japanese definition of the word Subaru, he said, "I find it particularly appropriate that this telescope is named Subaru, or uniting, coming together."

Japanese scientists who will operate the telescope make no secret of their ambition to have the world's best such instrument.

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