National Solar Observatory’s DKIST On Track To Provide Ground-Breaking Observations of the Sun

The DKIST Team. Image Credit: National Solar Observatory

The DKIST Team. Image Credit: National Solar Observatory

June 1, 2016 – Construction of the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope is on schedule for operations in 2020, it was reported today at the American Astronomical Society’s Solar Physics Division conference. When complete, it will be the highest-resolution solar telescope in the world.

The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) is under development on Haleakalā – the highest peak on the Hawaiian island of Maui. The National Science Foundation (NSF) is funding the facility, which is under development by the National Solar Observatory (NSO) based in Boulder, Colorado. NSO is hosting the Solar Physics conference.

DKIST Project Manager, Dr. Joseph McMullin provided the latest updates: “The external building has been completed, with the integration of major telescope systems underway. This includes the telescope mount assembly and the rotating instrument laboratory. The optical systems will be coming on board soon.” He also clarified the state of the primary mirror – the most critical element of the telescope: “It has been successfully polished to state-of-the-art specifications at the University of Arizona.”

The DKIST mirror has to be polished to 1/10,000th of a hair. Image Credit: National Solar Observatory

The DKIST mirror has to be polished to 1/10,000th of a hair. Image Credit: National Solar Observatory

“This ground-breaking instrument will revolutionize the world of solar astronomy,” explained Dr. Thomas Rimmele, DKI Solar Telescope Project Director. “We are pointing a four-meter (13 ft) telescope at the Sun for the very first time.”

Focusing so much sunlight on the telescope’s science instruments creates significant challenges. The telescope will gather 13 kW of power – approximately ten times that of a typical household’s use in an entire day. Protecting the sensitive electronic components from melting or even evaporating requires advanced cooling techniques. This cooling will be especially needed for the advanced adaptive optics (AO) system that will remove image blur introduced by the Earth’s atmosphere.

“DKIST’s resolution and sensitivity will permit us to directly and precisely measure the magnetic fields in the solar atmosphere for the very first time,” said Rimmele. “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.”

Monitoring space weather is crucial as our society increasingly relies on technology that is susceptible to damage from these large space events. Scientists have successfully measured the solar magnetic field strength close to the Sun’s surface, where the field is relatively strong. Higher in the solar atmosphere, in a layer called the corona, the magnetic field weakens to the strength of a refrigerator magnet. DKIST will be able to detect this weak field.

DKIST’s capabilities will usher in a new era of solar physics.

“DKIST will challenge the science community to take their understanding to a whole new level,” says Dr. David Boboltz – the NSF Program Director for DKIST. “NSF is extremely proud to be sponsoring this innovative facility and looks forward to the new knowledge it will inevitably bring to both the science community and the world at large.”

NSF funds DKIST through a cooperative agreement with the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA).

In addition to providing ground-breaking data, DKIST will change how ground-based solar data is distributed.

“DKIST has an open data policy, enabling community users to freely and openly access the entirety of available data. Any person looking to increase their understanding of the Sun will have access to a unique data resource; this is unprecedented in ground-based solar physics,” explains Dr. Valentin Martinez Pillet, NSO Director.

The DKIST Data Center will be located in Boulder, Colorado, where data will be shipped via optical fiber directly from Hawaii. Regular science operations of DKIST are scheduled to begin in early in 2020.