World's biggest solar telescope set for 2019 completion in Hawaii

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Sunrise at the DKIST construction site on December 3, 2014 (Photo: Brett Simison)

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The US$344 million Daniel K Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) is designed to image the surface of the Sun in unprecedented detail and help scientists address fundamental questions about solar physics when it opens sometime in 2019. The DKIST has just entered the next phase in its construction, with a consortium of eight UK universities and businesses tasked with producing the telescope's all-important cameras. Once complete, it will be the biggest solar telescope in the world – dwarfing current titleholder Big Bear Solar Observatory in California and edging out the 4.07 m (13.12 ft) European Solar Telescope that's also currently under construction.

DKIST was originally called the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope, but its name was changed in December 2013 in honor of the passing of Senator Inouye. It will feature a primary mirror that's 4.24 m (13.78 ft) wide and 75 mm (2.9 in) thick, which when combined with a special adaptive optics system and a much smaller secondary mirror will make it possible to examine the Sun's surface in stunning detail. Its zoom power is equivalent to being able to scrutinize the contours of an inch-wide coin from 100 km (62 mi) away.

It won't just gaze longingly at the Sun, though. DKIST's main job will be to make high-speed measurements of solar activity.

"The Sun is the most important astronomical object for humankind, with solar activity driving space weather and having profound effects on global climate and technology-based communications," said Professor Mihalis Mathioudakis of the Astrophysics Research Centre at Queen’s University Belfast, which is leading the UK consortium. "To understand solar activity we need to observe and model the physical processes in the solar atmosphere on their intrinsic spatial and temporal scales so that, among other questions, we can reliably forecast this activity in space."

In order to understand the big picture about how the Sun affects life on Earth, essentially, scientists need to first gain insights into the fine details, and DKIST is being built to do that. It will be able to see structures as small as 70 km (42 mi), which is tiny on the scale of the 1.4 million km (870,000 mi) wide Sun (for comparison, that's 109 times wider than Earth).

The National Solar Observatory, which is in charge of the DKIST project, anticipates that the telescope will not only fill in many gaps of our knowledge of the Sun and its magnetic activities, but also indicate what further questions must be asked – what, to borrow from the famous Donald Rumsfeld line, are the unknown unknowns in the solar mechanisms.

You can learn more about DKIST's planned role and the science behind its operation at the National Solar Observatory website.

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