5 March 2020
For all of humanity
Kyoto University launched the Unit of Synergetic Studies for Space (USSS) in 2008 as a center for interdisciplinary space-related research. If humans are to establish their presence in outer space, and to ensure their survival on this planet or beyond, we will need wide-ranging and comprehensive research spanning the natural sciences and the humanities. Based on this recognition, USSS has, since its inception, aimed to pioneer "synergetic space studies" as an integrative discipline that can serve all of humanity. This commitment has made the Unit a truly unique research organization, one that has no parallel in the world even after 10 years of existence.
Professor Shibata sharing stories behind USSS’ launch
The process of USSS coming into being, however, was not always smooth sailing. "Those days, we had very few opportunities to talk to researchers from other fields, even among natural scientists, so that, in fact, we had to begin each conversation by agreeing on which terminology to use," explained Professor Kazunari Shibata, former head of the Astronomical Observatories at the Graduate School of Science.
Recruiting members was a major challenge, especially from the humanities departments. USSS’ Specially Appointed Associate Professor Hiroaki Isobe, who during the Unit’s first years was its sole full-time faculty member, recalled that he had to begin by identifying and locating anyone who might be interested in space. "I would identify prospective members through my connections, call on them, and say, ‘Excuse me, but I was wondering if you were interested in space’." Dr Isobe, who also serves as an associate professor at Kyoto City University of the Arts, added: "Our approach was not coming up with a project and then assembling a team for its implementation; rather, we first brought together people and then thought about what exciting things we could do together."
Associate Professor Isobe reflecting on USSS’ first years
Possibilities for synergetic space studies
This approach has spawned several new fields of study, including "space ethics", which is concerned with ethical issues associated with outer-space activities, and "space anthropology", which examines humanity in the extraterrestrial context. Sessions on space ethics and space anthropology were part of some of the applied philosophy and cultural anthropology conferences held in 2013. Other initiatives to have come out of USSS activities include a "space humanities" project, focused on comparing satellite data with ancient illustrations and documents, and solar activity research utilizing historical texts.
In 2016, former astronaut Takao Doi joined the Unit to be in charge of research aimed at supporting human activities in space. His work at USSS to date has included leading parabolic flight experiments. The Unit’s next focus will be on space medicine, which seeks to evaluate the effects of radiation and zero gravity on astronauts.
Students participating in a parabolic flight experiment
Current USSS projects also include the development of a space weather forecasting system, which applies big data analysis to predict flares and magnetic storms. This technology is expected to form the basis of "space disaster prevention research", which the Unit is already exploring through its part in a collaboration between KyotoU’s Graduate School of Advanced Integrated Studies in Human Survivability (GSAIS) and Cambridge University’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER).
Another recent notable USSS undertaking, implemented in 2018, was a specialized and comprehensive ELSI research project. This first-of-its-kind effort sought to clarify the current state of space activities, and lay out possible future scenarios and societal implications. The goal was to provide a basis for discussion among a broad spectrum of stakeholders, including members of the general public. This initiative exemplifies the Unit’s commitment to ensuring that space activities will continue to develop in step with society. World-first projects are a regular part of KyotoU space studies as a synergetic discipline.
ELSI research on space activities, the first of its kind in the world
Engaging with people and society
Since its earliest years, USSS has always been active not only in research but also in education, science promotion, and community engagement, having hosted numerous public events for these purposes. This strong focus on community is in keeping with the Unit’s roots at the Kwasan Observatory, the beloved "holy site for amateur astronomers".
Many of USSS’ public events are unconventional. They have included unique collaborations such as: "Space Studies at Temples", where researchers sit down with Buddhist monks to discuss space, science, and religion; "Space Rakugo", where rakugo artists perform original stories incorporating the latest space science topics; and the "Space and Something" series, where masters of the traditional arts, such as tea ceremony, calligraphy, incense-making, and pottery, lead space-themed workshops. USSS has also hosted astronomy lectures for parents of small children, complete with on-site child-care services.
Each of these activities demonstrates the potential of KyotoU space studies to connect with numerous other fields and with society. In this era of intensifying space exploration, USSS, as a platform for creation, aims to continuously expand the capabilities of humans in space.
"Space Studies at Temples" promotes dialogue between researchers and Buddhist monks
"Space Rakugo" presents the latest in space science in the form of comic story-telling
- Bringing researchers together from multiple disciplines is a catalyst for innovation.
- Fresh ideas from early-career researchers and students are valued and respected.
- We are committed to expanding and fulfilling the potential of science to serve society.
Kyoto University would like to ask for your help in ensuring that its space studies research will continue to evolve based on unique ideas, unconstrained by external factors. The following are donation opportunities related to this article, and the University would be most grateful for your consideration of its request for support.