31/01/2020

QUB Plays Role In Solar Science Breakthrough

Queen's University Belfast has played a fundamental role in capturing the clearest and most detailed images of the Sun.

Images of the star were taken on the world's largest telescope and released by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

It comes after a project involving Queen's and seven other institutes that delivered and supplied the cameras.

Experts believe the new photos will advance solar science research into a new era and facilitate a leap forward in our understanding of the Sun's impact on our planet.

The project is expected to lead to better understanding of space weather, providing governments and utilities with more data and warnings about potential disasters.

They allow researchers to get a closer view of the star's surface and show cell like-structures, each compared roughly to the size of Texas, that are signature of violent motions that transport heat from inside the Sun to its surface.

The Inouye Solar Telescope developed by local researchers will provide important details for scientists.

The consortium of UK universities was led by QUB professor Mihalis Mathioudakis, who said the project has opened a new horizon in solar physics.

"Its imaging capability allows us to study the physical processes at work in the Sun's atmosphere at unprecedented levels of detail," Prof. Mathioudakis commented. "We worked hard over the past few years with Belfast-based Andor Technology to develop the cameras that equip the Inouye Solar Telescope and it is highly rewarding to now see this fascinating imaging."
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Activity on the Sun, known as space weather, can affect systems on Earth. Magnetic eruptions on the Sun can impact air travel, disrupt satellite communications and bring down power grids, causing long-lasting blackouts and disabling technologies such as GPS.

Finally resolving these tiny magnetic features is central to what makes the Inouye Solar Telescope unique. It can measure and characterise the Sun's magnetic field in more detail than ever seen before and determine the causes of potentially harmful solar activity.

"It's all about the magnetic field," said Thomas Rimmele, director of the Inouye Solar Telescope. "To unravel the Sun's biggest mysteries, we have to not only be able to clearly see these tiny structures from 93 million miles away but very precisely measure their magnetic field strength and direction near the surface and trace the field as it extends out into the million-degree corona, the outer atmosphere of the Sun."

Better understanding of the origins of potential disasters will enable governments and utilities to better prepare for inevitable future space weather events. It is expected that notification of potential impacts could occur earlier - as much as 48 hours ahead of time instead of the current standard, which is about 48 minutes. This would allow for more time to secure power grids and critical infrastructure and to put satellites into safe mode.

"These first images are just the beginning," said David Boboltz, programme director in NSF's division of astronomical sciences and who oversees the facility's construction and operations. "Over the next six months, the Inouye telescope's team of scientists, engineers and technicians will continue testing and commissioning the telescope to make it ready for use by the international solar scientific community. The Inouye Solar Telescope will collect more information about our Sun during the first five years of its lifetime than all the solar data gathered since Galileo first pointed a telescope at the Sun in 1612."



(JG/CM)

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