Solar flares are massive explosions of energy in the Sun’s atmosphere. Experts have warned that even a single ‘monster’ solar flare could cause up to $2 trillion worth of damage on Earth, including the loss of satellites and electricity grids, as well the potential knock-on dangers to human life and health. A key goal of the $300 million Daniel K Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST), which will be the largest solar telescope in the world when construction is finished in 2019 on the Pacific island of Maui, is the measurement of magnetic fields in the outer regions of the Sun’s atmosphere.
The technique pioneered by the Queen’s-led team, just published in the journal Nature Physics, will feed into the DKIST project, as well as allowing greater advance warning of potentially devastating space storms. The new technique allows changes in the Sun’s magnetic fields, which drive the initiation of solar flares, to be monitored up to ten times faster than previous methods.
The Queen’s-led team, which spans academics from universities in Europe, the Asia-Pacific and the USA, harnessed data from both NASA’s premier space-based telescope (the Solar Dynamics Observatory), and the ROSA multi-camera system, which was designed at Queen’s University Belfast, using detectors made by Northern Ireland company Andor Technology.
Lead researcher Dr David Jess from Queen’s Astrophysics Research Centre said: “Continual outbursts from our Sun, in the form of solar flares and associated space weather, represent the potentially destructive nature of our nearest star. Our new techniques demonstrate a novel way of probing the Sun’s outermost magnetic fields, providing scientists worldwide with a new approach to examine, and ultimately understand, the precursors responsible for destructive space weather.
“Queen’s is increasingly becoming a major player on the astrophysics global stage. This work highlights the strong international links we have with other leading academic institutes from around the world, and provides yet another example of how Queen’s research is at the forefront of scientific discovery.”