World's largest solar telescope array almost complete

World’s largest solar telescope array almost complete

On the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, engineers are assembling the final pieces of hardware on the world’s largest telescope array used to study the sun.

Construction of the Daocheng Solar Radio Telescope (DSRT), which consists of more than 300 dish-shaped antennas forming a circle more than 3 kilometers in circumference, is expected to be completed by the end of next month. Trial operation begins in June. The 100 million yuan ($14 million) observatory will help researchers study solar flares and how they affect conditions around Earth.

“We are entering the golden age of solar astronomy as many large solar telescopes come online,” says Maria Kazachenko, a solar physicist at the University of Colorado, Boulder. These include NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, launched in 2018, and the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter, launched in 2020, both collecting data as they orbit the star.

The sun will enter a highly active phase in the next few years. The high-frequency data collected by DSRT will complement those collected by telescopes operating in other frequency bands. In the past two years, China has launched at least four solar observation satellites – including the Advanced Space-based Solar Observatory in October – that study the star at ultraviolet and X-ray frequencies. “China now has instruments that can observe all levels of the Sun, from its surface to the outermost atmosphere,” says Hui Tian, ​​a solar physicist at Peking University in Beijing.

Observatories in China will also provide important data on solar activity not visible to telescopes in other time zones, says Ding Mingde, a solar physicist at Nanjing University. Solar research requires global collaboration, he adds.

starbursts

Radio telescopes like DSRT are useful for studying activity in the Sun’s upper atmosphere — the corona — such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). These are giant eruptions of hot plasma from the corona that occur when the Sun’s twisted magnetic field “locks in” and then reconnects. When the high-energy particles released during a CME hurtle toward Earth, the resulting “space weather” can damage orbiting satellites and disrupt power grids on Earth.

In February, a relatively weak CME destroyed 40 Starlink communications satellites launched by SpaceX, an aerospace company in California. “With an increasing number of satellites in space, there is an increasing need for better space weather forecasts,” says Ding.

Kazachenko says forecasting space weather remains a struggle. DSRT has a wide field of view at least 36 times larger than the solar disk, which will allow the telescope to track the evolution of CMEs and observe how high-energy particles propagate through space, says Jingye Yan, the chief engineer of DSRT at the National Space Science Center, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in Beijing. “With this information, we may be able to predict if and when coronal mass ejections will reach Earth,” says Yan.

DSRT’s 313 antennas enable high sensitivity for better space weather forecasts. The large array could potentially detect weaker signals from high-energy particles that could be missed by arrays observing in the same frequency range — from 150 megahertz to 450 megahertz — with fewer antennas, such as the Nançay Radioheliograph in France, which has 47 antennas. says Jan

DSRT’s observational data will be made available to international researchers, Yan says. And China’s National Space Science Center, which oversees DSRT’s operations, plans to open the telescope at night for other types of observation, such as pulsar research. China is also building a new optical telescope on the Tibetan Plateau in Sichuan, which is expected to be completed in 2026.

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