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Exploring space on Earth

Tokyo - Below the visitors swirl heavenly bodies and other spectacular images of space, projected on a circular screen measuring 11 meters in diameter.

The screen shows breathtaking views such as of the starry night sky in Hawaii and beautiful computer-generated images of the solar system and the milky way. Photos of Earth shot from the International Space Station make our planet appear glittering like a blue gem floating in the universe.

The 10-minute movie is one of the highlights at TeNQ, a space museum that opened in July inside the Tokyo Dome City entertainment complex in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo. It is shown at Theatre SORA inside the museum.

Various meanings can be discerned within the museum's name. For example, the Japanese word “ten” means the heavens as well as an exhibition. The letter “Q” comes from the English word “Quest” as well as from the similarly pronounced kanji “kyu,” which has a meaning of exploration or study. As the name suggests, visitors can learn about the latest findings about space through the museum's exhibitions.

Another highlight of the museum is the Science corner right next to Theatre SORA. Here, scientific data and information, such as the characteristics of the solar system and the latest results from space exploration, are comprehensively explained to visitors using displays and panels.

One such example is reports from probes exploring planets and satellites in the solar system. More than 170 probes have been launched from Earth, and they are observing more than 70 heavenly bodies and sending data back to Earth. The exhibits introduce these space explorers, both old and new, and visitors can view the latest images of the surface of Mars, transmitted by US spacecraft Mars Odyssey, which is orbiting the Red Planet.

There is also an achievement report from the Japanese space probe Hayabusa, the world's first probe vehicle to bring rock samples from an asteroid back to the Earth. Visitors can learn what the particles unraveled about the mysterious asteroid, called Itokawa, and how it was formed, for example. Through these findings, it is now believed that a bigger asteroid was destroyed and some of its debris came together again to form Itokawa.

The displays in this section were all produced by The University Museum, The University of Tokyo.

“To continue work with planetary probes, it is important that many people understand their significance,” said Hideaki Miyamoto, an associate professor at the university museum. “I hope visitors can truly experience science through the exhibits.”

A glass-walled research room in the corner is brightly lit, drawing visitors' attention. The Research Centre, the university museum's satellite office at TeNQ, is a full-scale research lab complete with a meteorite analyser. Specialists in planetary science, including Miyamoto, are stationed at the Centre, where they analyse data from space probes and discuss the next space explorations, all seen by visitors outside the room.

Asked whether he feels self-conscious being watched, Miyamoto said, “I do in some way.” But he added resolutely, “I'd be glad if children saw us and think they could be researchers, too.”

Schoolchildren can probably find an appropriate topic for their school summer study projects at TeNQ.

As a topic, Miyamoto recommends children find out how many planetary probes there are at the moment and what they are doing. Planetary probes include those that observe the surface of a planet from above and those that land on a planet and examine rocks and other objects on the surface.

As for Japanese probes, Hayabusa II, Hayabusa's successor, is scheduled for launch this winter. Which planet is Hayabusa II heading for? What type of research will the space probe do? Compare Hayabusa II with the first Hayabusa, study about the two, and you will experience a greater sense of meaning at Hayabusa II's launch this winter.

Another research topic recommended by Miyamoto is comparing astronomical objects in the solar system. There are not only the sun and the planets like Earth in the solar system, but also much smaller asteroids worth studying.

“There are surprisingly few diagrams showing astronomical bodies on the scale of 1:30 million to 1:40 million on one sheet,” Miyamoto said. “It would be interesting to make your own diagram, adding information like the size of each astronomical objects and the appearance of its surface as well as information on space probes that have visited the object.”

If you are interested in learning about Japanese space development, the best place to go is Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). At JAXA's Tsukuba Space Centre in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, rockets and man-made satellites can be seen on display. There is currently an exhibition that introduces the history and mechanisms of rockets.

At the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan in Mitaka, Tokyo, visitors can observe the facilities on site every day. A meteorite found in Antarctica is on display at the National Institute of Polar Research in Tachikawa, Tokyo, while the planetarium dome at Nagoya City Science Museum in Nagoya is the largest in the world, at 35 meters in diameter.

At Nishi-Harima Astronomical Observatory in Sayo, Hyogo Prefecture, which boasts the country's largest reflector telescope, Nayuta, with a diameter of 2 meters, stargazing parties are held every night. Weekdays and Saturdays during the summer holiday season are already fully booked, but no reservation is required for Sunday nights.

TeNQ is on the 6th floor of Yellow Building in Tokyo Dome City near Suidobashi Station in Tokyo. The museum is open daily from 11am to 9pm weekdays and from 10am to 9pm Saturdays, Sundays and certain other days. Admission is 1 800 yen (about R200) for adults, 1 500 yen for high school and university students, 1 200 yen for children from age four to middle school age and those aged 65 or older. Takashi Ito, The Yomiuri Shimbun/Washington Post

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