Construction on Europe’s largest ever telescope has been given the go-ahead in a joint project that includes UK universities.
Launched in 2008, the European Solar Telescope (EST) project aims to provide valuable insights into the mechanisms underlying solar flares and coronal mass ejections.
Construction on the telescope, which will be capable of monitoring ‘space weather’ events, will be supported by the University of Sheffield, which signed the deal today with EST’s Canary Foundation on behalf of the United Kingdom Universities Consortium (UKUC).
Leading the UKUC, the University of Sheffield has committed itself and the universities of Aberystwyth, Durham, Exeter, Glasgow and Queen’s University Belfast, along with a further six European countries, to the construction of the telescope at the El Roque de los Muchachos Observatory at La Palma in Spain.
The project’s conceptual design study estimates €150m to design and construct the EST and projects about €6.5m annually for its operation.
Professor Robertus von Fay-Siebenburgen, who will be a principal investigator for the project, said: “The EST will be the biggest ground-based solar telescope constructed in Europe and will keep its European partners at the forefront of solar physics research.
“This kind of unrivalled research infrastructure will provide European astronomers and plasma-astrophysicists with an extraordinary tool for observing the Sun and its space weather, one that will pave the way for scientific advancements in some of the world’s biggest and most important challenges, such as the development of green fusion energy.
“By being able to study the physical processes happening in the solar chromosphere in such detail for the first time, we will gain new insight into how the heating mechanisms occur that underpin the plasma heating processes. Learning from how nature does it will help us explore how to replicate the process for the benefit of humankind.”
One of the EST’s primary objectives is to improve understanding of the Sun by observing its magnetic fields. Once operational, the telescope will be able to uncover signals currently hidden in the noise and reveal the existence of unknown, tiny magnetic structures.
The EST’s instrumentation has been configured to study the magnetic and dynamic coupling of the solar atmosphere, and capture the interactions between the different atmospheric layers of the Sun.
It will also be able to conduct simultaneous observations across multiple wavelengths, which will make it more efficient than other existing telescopes.
The University of Sheffield will be looking at how the project can process the vast amounts of data produced by the telescope. It is estimated to produce a petabyte of data per day, roughly equivalent to the amount of data used to store more than 220,000 DVD films.
Sheffield will be responsible for how the project can handle and analyse some of this data, which will mean creating entirely new functions to make full use of the EST’s capabilities.
The preliminary design phase of the telescope has already been completed and it is expected to enter a six-year construction period later in 2023.
Professor Lyndsay Fletcher, of the University of Glasgow’s School of Physics and Astronomy, was part of the team responsible for defining the telescope requirements.
She said: “Our research into solar flares and prominences stands to benefit enormously, since the innovative design of the telescope means that it is optimised for measuring the Sun’s magnetic field, which governs these energetic phenomena.
“Novel instrumentation, recording the Sun’s structure and dynamics with four times the spatial detail of any existing solar telescope in Europe will lead to a step-change in [the] understanding of energetic events on our nearest star.”
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