World’s Largest Solar Telescope Array Unveiled!

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Credits: Yifu Wu/ Unsplash
  • China’s Daocheng Solar Radio Telescope will help scientists study solar eruptions and how they affect conditions on Earth.
  • High-energy particles from a CME can damage satellites and disrupt power grids on Earth.
  • A relatively weak CME in February destroyed 40 Starlink communications satellites launched by SpaceX. 

Engineers on the Tibetan Plateau have just finished installing the final pieces of hardware on the world’s largest telescope array for studying the Sun, reported by Nature.

Solar Telescopes

On November 13, the Daocheng Solar Radio Telescope (DSRT) was completed, consisting of more than 300 dish-shaped antennas forming a circle more than 3 kilometers in circumference.

The trial phase will begin in June. The 100 million yuan (US$14 million) observatory will assist researchers in studying solar eruptions and how they affect conditions on Earth.

“We are entering a golden age of solar astronomy as many major solar telescopes come online,” says Maria Kazachenko, a solar physicist at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, launched in 2018, and the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter, launched in 2020, are two examples. Both collect data as they orbit the star.

Chinese observations

The Sun will enter a highly active phase in the coming years. The radio-frequency data collected by DSRT will supplement that collected by telescopes working in other frequency bands. 

China has launched at least four solar-gazing satellites in the last two years, including the Advanced Space-based Solar Observatory in October, which studies the star at ultraviolet and X-ray frequencies. 

“China now has instruments that can observe all levels of the Sun,” says Hui Tian, a solar physicist at Peking University in Beijing.

According to Ding Mingde, a solar physicist at Nanjing University, Chinese observatories will also provide important data on solar activities that are not visible to telescopes in other time zones. Solar research, he adds, necessitates global collaboration.

Stellar explosions

Radio telescopes like the DSRT are useful for studying solar flares and coronal mass ejections, which occur in the Sun’s upper atmosphere, or corona (CMEs). 

These are massive coronal eruptions of hot plasma that occur when the Sun’s twisted magnetic field snaps’ and then reconnects. 

When high-energy particles from a CME hit the Earth, the resulting space weather can damage orbiting satellites and disrupt power grids.

Credits: SpaceX/ Unsplash

Space weather

A relatively weak CME in February destroyed 40 Starlink communications satellites launched by SpaceX, a California-based aerospace company. 

It is becoming more important to forecast space weather, according to Ding, as there are more satellites in orbit.

According to Kazachenko, forecasting space weather is still difficult. 

According to Jingye Yan, the DSRT’s chief engineer at the National Space Science Center, a division of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, the telescope can track the development of CMEs.

And observe how high-energy particles propagate through space due to its wide field of view, which is at least 36 times larger than the Sun’s disc. 

“With this information, we may be able to predict whether and when coronal mass ejections will reach Earth,” Yan says.

The 313 antennas on DSRT will allow it to achieve high sensitivity for better space weather forecasting. 

According to Yan, the large array could potentially capture weaker signals from high-energy particles that would be missed by arrays observing at the same frequency range — from 150 megahertz to 450 megahertz — with fewer antennas.

According to Yan, DSRT observation data will be made available to international researchers. In addition, China’s National Space Science Center, which oversees DSRT operations, intends to open the telescope at night for other types of observation, such as pulsar research. 

China is also constructing a new optical telescope on the Tibetan Plateau in Sichuan, which is expected to be completed in 2026.

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Source: Nature

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