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Zoom in on the Sun: The world’s most powerful super-telescope

17 April 2015

Eight UK universities are working with businesses and research institutes to build the world’s biggest and most powerful solar telescope, which will revolutionise our understanding of the Sun.

The Daniel K Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) will be launched in 2019 at the US National Solar Observatory on the Haleakalā volcano in Hawaii.

Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) in Northern Ireland is leading the consortium of UK universities and businesses that will design and build cameras for the $344 million super-telescope. 

With a 4m diameter primary mirror, the telescope will be able to pick up tiny details on the surface of the Sun – the equivalent of being able to examine a £1 coin from 100km away.

We meet two professors involved in the project – Mihalis Mathioudakis, professor of Astrophysics and Principal Investigator of the consortium; and Gerry Doyle, head of the solar physics group at Armagh Observatory – and Juie Shetye, 29-year-old student from Mumbai in India, who is studying for a PhD in Astrophysics at Armagh Observatory (enrolled at QUB).

Juie working on her research at Queen's University Belfast (Photo ©Juie Shetye)

International student Juie Shetye

‘I came to QUB and Armagh Observatory to do a PhD in astrophysics, examining features on the Sun called spicules – these are very fine, hair-like structures that appear on the surface of the Sun. I am working on specific types of these features called current sheets or fibrils. I’ve been analysing and gathering data to try and explain them. So far we’ve been able to see that none of the current theories can possibly be true, and so my PhD has become something that could change science.

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‘That’s why the DKIST is so exciting. Currently, telescopes don’t have great resolution – you can only see an area of around 100km on the Sun, but my research is like trying to monitor a single hair moving, so you need far more detail.

'Thanks to the Observatory and QUB, I’ve already been able to use the data and the equipment at La Palma and the National Solar Observatory in New Mexico to test the current theories and produce initial conclusions. With DKIST's spatial resolution of 25km, I’ll be able to test those once and for all.

‘I knew I wanted to make my career in this area, and it wouldn’t have made sense for me to come to the UK if I wasn’t going to learn something new – after all, I can sit in my bedroom in India and study space-based data.

‘Armagh Observatory and QUB are the world leaders in ground-based instruments, with permanent telescopes across the world. The UK will have access to the DKIST data, which will be unparalleled in solar physics. If you want to use any of it, then you have to come here – or build another telescope in your own country!

‘Here, I also get access to computing classes and facilities that I wouldn’t get in India unless I was specifically studying that area of computer programming, simply because demand is too high.

‘My supervisor always puts my name on my research and encourages my interests; he goes out of his way to contact people to tell them about it. He contacts experts for opinions to back up my conclusions, and he checks my English to make sure I’ve used all the correct technical terms, so I’m never nervous about what I submit. I’m only 29 and already named as a researcher – that might not have been the case if I’d stayed at home.

‘I had no idea I was going to be involved in the DKIST – or that my research would be having such an impact! People are already saying that the work I’ve done is a new discovery and it will make a difference.

‘When I finish my PhD, I’ll be able to extend my final calculations using the DKIST. It’s so exciting to be involved in something that’s going to change science!’

An artist's impression of the telescope, when it's complete in 2019

Professors Mihalis Mathioudakis and Gerry Doyle

‘The Sun is the most important astronomical object for humankind, with solar activity driving space weather and having profound effects on global climate and technology-based communications. To understand solar activity we need to observe and model the physical processes in the solar atmosphere on their intrinsic spatial and temporal scales so that, among other questions, we can reliably forecast this activity in space.

‘Scientific discoveries demand technological innovation and play a major role in economic growth. DKIST will be a revolutionary instrument for ground-based solar physics, which is a growth area in the UK.

‘It will be in a position to explore key questions regarding solar magnetic field generation and dissipation, solar variability, atmospheric structure and dynamics.

‘Our consortium will deliver key equipment that will allow DKIST to achieve these scientific goals and it’s another example of how astronomical research impacts on society, both locally and internationally.’

DKIST is funded by the US National Science Foundation, with £2.5m of funding provided by the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council. Click here to find out more.

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