World's biggest solar telescope will zoom in on sun's surface... and Belfast boffins are helping to build it
It will be the world's biggest solar telescope, capable of homing in on the tiniest details of our sun's surface - and a vital part of it is being built here.
The incredible level of detail that can be picked up by the super-telescope - a groundbreaking new project which involves Queen's University Belfast, Armagh Observatory and Andor Technology - will be the equivalent of spotting a £1 coin in Dublin from a vantage point in Belfast.
The planned $344 million Daniel K Inouye Solar Telegraph (DKIST) is expected to uncover unprecedented information that will reveal how solar flares drive space weather and how long-term changes in the sun are influencing climate change.
The telescope is being built on Haleakala mountain on the island of Maui in Hawaii by the US National Solar Observatory and features a four-metre diameter primary mirror.
Queen's is leading a consortium of eight universities and other businesses in providing the cameras for the super-telescope.
The detectors that will pick up the visible range of the electro-magnetic radiation being emitted from the sun are to be built here in Belfast, at QUB spin-off company Andor Technology which is based at Springvale Industrial Estate. These detectors don't even exist anywhere in the world at present.
Professor Mihalis Mathioudakis of the Astrophysics Research Centre at QUB said: "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."
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He says the super-telescope will be able to pinpoint stretches of the sun's surface as small as 25km - the equivalent of spotting a £1 coin from 100 miles away.
"We will be able to understand how magnetic energy in the sun manages to build up from this very very small scale to the big solar sunspots which can reach dimensions of 50,000km," he said.
"The solar flares release a tremendous electro magnetic reaction, equivalent to billions of Hiroshima-type bombs."
The aftermath of solar eruptions can have a huge impact on Earth, disrupting communications grids and damaging power stations if there isn't enough warning, so uncovering the way they are created is a key part of the work.
"In the longer term it will help us to understand irradiance variations and how they affect Earth's climate," Professor Mathioudakis said.
The consortium of UK institutes in DKIST will oversee the development and delivery of the cameras.
Professor Gerry Doyle, head of Solar Physics research at Armagh Observatory, says this is the only game in town as regards ground-based solar physics for the next decade.
Dr Donal Denvir, technical director at Andor Technology, said: "Andor will play a central role in the design and manufacture of state-of-the-art detectors for this high-profile solar physics initiative.
"The technology will provide an innovative combination of high-performance specifications that simply do not exist today, a solution that will prove enabling not only for next-generation solar studies, but for the wider professional astronomy community and beyond."