The new frontiers in the knowledge of the Universe. An interview with Nichi D’Amico
President D’Amico, the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) recently placed second in the 2016 rankings of research institutions, compiled by the journal Nature, in front of prestigious institutes like CERN and NASA. What are the reasons for this success?
The “Nature Index Collaboration”, the world rankings of research institutions based on international collaborations and scientific production, this year sees INAF in second place, after CNRS, the French National Centre for Scientific Research. This result is the outcome of the genius and individual enthusiasm that animates the INAF community of researchers that can boast a number of successes in international competitions for the use of the largest infrastructures for the observation of the Universe. However, it is also the result of the role of INAF in the development of many of the cutting-edge technologies and instruments present in the most important infrastructures around the world and in space missions. This perfect balance between “bottom up” and “top down” processes, which originate respectively by the researchers and by the institute, is one of the keys to our success.
What are the main research projects in which INAF takes part? And what is the potential impact on our Country?
In terms of international collaboration, since 1982 Italy has been in a partnership with ESO (European Southern Observatory), the European organization that manages the modern optical telescopes located in Chile. ESO has always been a fertile testing ground for INAF researchers and many technologies used in these super-telescopes are designed in our Country, developed by the Italian industry in a continuous process of technology transfer. In the field of optical astronomy, INAF has strongly contributed to the construction of the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT), one of the largest and most advanced optical telescopes located in Arizona, which was entirely designed and built in Italy. Another product of the Italian technology and industry is the Galileo National Telescope in the Canary Islands, which, despite being a lower power telescope, is providing excellent results in the search for extrasolar planets.
In addition to optical phenomena, there is the observation of the Universe through radio waves. What are the main projects in which Italy takes part in this field?
The observation of the Universe and cosmic sources through radio waves is a consolidated branch of astronomy, and our Country is at the forefront with the presence in Italy of three poles of the European network, in Medicina, near Bologna, Noto, in Sicily, and in Sardinia, which hosts the Sardinia Radio Telescope, one of the most advanced telescopes of the European network. Italy is therefore at the forefront in all areas of modern astronomy. INAF is the only institute in the world that today has all the skills to do research in any branch of astronomy, involving astronomical observations at all wavelengths, from Earth and from Space. This gives us a comprehensive view of all physical phenomena in the Universe and gives our Country a single coordinating body in this area of research, with undeniable benefits in terms of development, education and economy of scale.
Talking about Space, what is the contribution of INAF to today’s space missions?
The INAF researcher community is very good at winning the calls for the construction of scientific instruments to be installed on board space missions. VIMS, for example, is an instrument developed and implemented by INAF operating on the Cassini probe which, since 2004, has been studying Saturn’s system and its moons. INAF also makes a strong contribution to ESA’s GAIA mission, which is building the first three-dimensional map of the Milky Way, mapping over a billion celestial objects. In addition, we are building new instruments for the ExoMars 2020 mission, including an instrument that will drill into the soil of Mars and look for signs of life in the Martian subsurface.
These skills in astrophysics have brought our Country to achieve important successes with an eye to the future. Isn’t it so?
Last May, ESO entrusted a consortium of Italian industries with the construction of the dome and the mechanical structure of the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), the world’s largest optical telescope under construction in the desert of Chile, with a 400 million euro order, the largest ever awarded in this sector. Italy also has a key role in the construction of the Cherenkov Telescope Array, the largest and most powerful gamma-ray observatory in the world, involving the construction of over a hundred telescopes distributed in the two terrestrial hemispheres, which will have its headquarters in Bologna. Talking about radio astronomy, INAF is directly involved in the construction of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the world’s largest and most powerful radio telescope based on thousands of radio antennas located in South Africa and Australia, having a strong geopolitical significance as well as a strong scientific value.
What answers can be provided by these futuristic telescopes under construction?
Taking advantage of the enormous potential of these instruments, we will be able to capture the weakest signals from the boundaries of the Universe and answer some of the great questions about its origin and evolution. At the same time, we will be able to better observe nearby objects, such as exoplanets, analyzing the composition of their atmospheres to understand whether there exist the conditions for life. It is a great scientific result that may have major implications for our society. The development of these instruments, in fact, requires a high degree of innovation and doing innovation it is very easy to “come across” new technologies with a strong economic and social impact. Let's not forget that Wi-Fi was devised by a group of Australian radio astronomers as a response to a technical problem of basic research. For this reason, investment in basic research is one of the pillars of innovation and, for this reason, the expenses for research should be considered by governments as an investment rather than a cost.