Students’ revolutionary solar telescope selected for launch with NASA


New Delhi: A revolutionary telescope that is set to capture new images of the sun has been developed by a team of students from the University of Sheffield.

Images captured by the instrument, which has been designed by science and engineering students at the University, could be used to help improve forecasting of solar activity – major energetic events from the sun that can pose significant risks to human health, power grids and space assets.

Built using novel manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing, the telescope’s design could revolutionise solar observational technology.

Current Earth-based solar telescopes are expensive, in part because there needs to be a significant investment in mirrors and other hardware to obtain scientific quality images of the sun.

Launching into space later this year, the telescope is the only instrument from outside of the USA that has been selected to be on NASA’s High Altitude Student Platform (HASP) – a zero pressure balloon supported by NASA and the Louisiana Space Consortium.

The balloon flies once a year from New Mexico, in the USA, and carries equipment to an altitude of around 36 kilometres for more than 10 hours.

The low cost solar observation system developed by the Sheffield students can operate completely autonomously. It will use the high altitude balloon to lift the solar telescope above the interference of the Earth’s lower atmosphere to observe the sun in the H-alpha spectral line – a particular wavelength of light emitted by the sun that astronomers and solar physicists can use to observe the sun’s chromosphere.

The team hopes their system will capture interesting features, such as solar flares – radiation and particles capable of penetrating the Earth’s atmosphere.

Solar prominences – clouds of plasma that can be used to help visualise the sun’s magnetic field lines, but are often difficult for researchers to capture, could also be photographed by the telescope.

This newly developed system has great potential to capture observations of the sun in other spectral lines, such as UV, which are absorbed before they reach ground level.

It is hoped the Sheffield students’ telescope can improve sun-tracking, image collection systems and obtain full disk images of the sun.

Roisin Clear, a Masters student in Automatic Control and Systems Engineering at the University of Sheffield, has been working on the telescope, which is named Project SunbYte. She said: “Being involved in the SunbYte project has been a fantastic experience so far and I’m hoping that it’s going to get even better when we get to go to the US to launch our payload.

“It has taken a lot of hard work to get to the point of having our instrument selected for a balloon flight with NASA, however I have learned a lot since I’ve started and I’ve had the chance to meet lots of fellow space enthusiasts. It’s been a very positive experience and one that is quite unique to the University of Sheffield.

“With the SunbYte payload we are hoping to show that high quality images of the sun can be captured remotely by student teams at low cost, as this is normally only available to large research institutions and space agencies.”

Roisin added: “Taking images in the far-red part of the spectrum will allow us to see the detail that would be lost in a full-spectrum image. Hopefully the resulting images will be of interest to those exploring space weather and solar physics.”

Dr Viktor Fedun from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering (ACSE), said: “This project, which is part of the University of Sheffield’s Space Initiative (SSI) is an excellent opportunity for us to create new sustainable networks between the University of Sheffield, world-wide universities, and the satellite and aerospace industry.

“Working on the SunbYte project trains our STEM students to work together with our researchers and alumni, gaining real life experience in finding design solutions to actual aerospace challenges. Student participation in the SSI projects has already confirmed that research-led teaching of this nature is a great opportunity for our students to solve real-life engineering problems and substantially increases their employability.”

Dr Gary Verth from the University’s School of Mathematics and Statistics (SoMaS), added: “The level of competition to be on board the high altitude balloon was very high, and SunbYte will be the only payload on this flight from outside of the USA. The project is a true interdisciplinary achievement, involving students across the University’s faculties of Engineering and Science. Students are currently assembling and testing SunbYte ahead of the integration with NASA’s High Altitude Student Platform gondola in July before the actual launch in September 2019.”

Dr Istvan Ballai from the University’s School of Mathematics and Statistics(SoMaS), said: “This achievement is a great opportunity for the solar physicists at University of Sheffield, in particular, to the members of Plasma Dynamics Group (PDG), since we will be able to exploit the high resolution data from SunbYte to validate our theoretical models of the sun’s chromosphere.”

The University of Sheffield’s Space Initiative (SSI) is a programme of extra-curricular activities involving students from across a range of departments. The SSI activities accelerate and enhance the impact of the space related research carried out at the University of Sheffield and enables students and staff to transfer knowledge and skills thereby increasing the impact of the university and its research.

The SSI also collaborates with universities across the globe and is supported by the University’s Faculty of Engineering, Faculty of Science, the University’s Alumni Fund, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), IPE, AMRC, RS Components UK, ANSYS, Inc. and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMecE).