A New Telescope Will Study the Sun's Violent Outbursts and Maybe Protect Earth

It could play an essential role in helping us protect our planet from cataclysmic solar storms. 


Humans are no strangers to solar storms. Although they seem few and far between to us, on the geological and cosmological scale, the energy from solar storms hits our planet all the time in the form of magnetic explosions.

In the past, we never really had to worry about solar storms, but thanks to the creep of modern technology and electrical instruments in practically everything we do, that’s no longer the case. A solar storm has the capacity to basically cripple the modern world for months or even years afterward.

So if we’re going to study and keep track of the sun’s more violent surface activity, we need better instruments. At the American Astronomical Society’s Solar Physics Division conference this week, scientists announced that the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope, currently under construction, is set to be operational by 2020. By its completion, it will be the highest-resolution solar telescope the world.

The  Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope in January.

Gary Candid

Being built on the highest peak of the Hawaiian island of Maui as a collaboration between the National Science Foundation and the National Solar Observatory, the DKIST project will play a crucial role in helping us to understand more about space weather and predict exactly how the magnetic energy expelled by the sun will affect systems situated on the ground and currently zipping around in orbit.

“Understanding the behavior of the Sun’s magnetic fields is vital for prediction of space weather events such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections,” says Thomas Rimmele, the DKIST project director. “This ground-breaking instrument will revolutionize the world of solar astronomy.”

At just 13 feet, the telescope seems modest on the outset. Inside, however, is a system capable of soaking in 13 kilowatts of power — about 10 times the energy a typical household uses every day. Advanced cooling components will help make sure DKIST can operate with peak efficiency without getting overheated.

The biggest gains scientists expect from DKIST are new observations of the weaker magnetic fields present in the upper atmospheres of the sun. Scientists are currently limited to investigating the lower coronal layers, but have little understanding of what the magnetic activity in the sun’s upper layers is like. This could prove very useful in helping us anticipate well in advance whether the sun is about to experience a solar storm that could damage our earthbound equipment.

And to boot, all of DKIST’s data will be open to any scientist or citizen interested in perusing and analyzing it.

We still have to wait four more years until the DKIST is operational in 2020. In any case, if a planet-threatening solar storm does end up getting spewed up by the sun, we still have a 12-hour grace period to soak up the use of our technology and download as many cat GIFs as we can before all of our systems shut down.

Still, pretty amazing to look at, no?

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