Mystery of the Sun to be investigated by China’s first dedicated solar observatory
This Sunday China is set to launch its first dedicated solar observatory into space in order to help investigate the mysteries of the Sun, according to a report by published Nature magazine on Friday.
The Advanced Space-based Solar Observatory (ASO-S) will be equipped with three instruments that will provide information on how the Sun's magnetic field causes coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and other eruptions.
A mission a long time coming
The observatory cost a whopping 900 million yuan (U.S. $126 million) and has been a long time coming.
Chinese scientists first suggested such a mission in the 1970s, Weiqun Gan, an astrophysicist at the Purple Mountain Observatory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Nanjing, and the mission’s chief scientist, told Nature magazine.
“We always wanted to do something like this,” he added.
Today, it is common knowledge that the Sun's magnetic field causes its energetic emissions but the relationship between the two remains a mystery. ASO-S will look across different wavelengths at once to tie the eruptions to their underlying causes and reveal exactly what those causes are.
As such, Chinese scientists have given ASO-S the nickname Kuafu-1, after a giant in Chinese mythology who sought to catch and tame the Sun. The tool’s mission will last four years and will observe the Sun from an orbit 720 kilometers above Earth’s surface.
Gan added that this time frame will cover the 2024–25 peak of the solar cycle, which lasts 11 years on average. “In these peak years we can observe a lot of eruptions,” he explained.
ASO-S will focus on the fundamental physics of high-energy bursts of radiation known as solar flares, CMEs, and their origins. This research will then provide context for understanding other similar activity elsewhere in the universe.
Studying and predicting space weather
The mission will also evaluate how solar flares and CMEs can affect Earth when they interact with the planet’s atmosphere by studying the ‘space weather’ that results from these activities. On Earth, this weather has been known to interfere with navigation systems and disrupt power grids.
ASO-S will be able to forecast space weather allowing researchers to predict when and where such eruptions will happen and prepare for their aftermath.
Among the tool’s instruments are a magnetograph to study the Sun’s magnetic field, an X-ray imager for studying the high-energy radiation released by electrons accelerated in solar flares, and a coronagraph to investigate the plasma produced by flares and CMEs.
As such, ASO-S will peer for the first time ever into the middle corona where solar storms brew in the ultraviolet spectrum. This never before undertaken endeavor will give new clues to the origins of CMEs.
This is not the first Chinese project to focus extensively on CMEs. Just last August, China was reported to be building the world's largest array of telescopes designed to study the Sun. The array, called the Daocheng Solar Radio Telescope (DSRT) has been engineered to help scientists better understand CMEs.