High hopes for the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope

Sun-watchers hope giant telescope will get green light

Observatory would reveal structures that trigger sunspots and space weather.

Render of proposed ATST facility on Haleakalā

Eric Hand

Close and bright though it is, the Sun still defies a thorough understanding. One reason is that some of the features on its roiling surface are too small and short-lived to be studied even by the world’s largest solar telescopes.

That will change if the US National Solar Observatory (NSO) proceeds with its latest project — the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST), a Sun-gazing behemoth due to be built on the summit of Haleakala, the highest peak on the Hawaiian island of Maui. This month, an officially appointed arbiter will weigh the scientists’ goals against objections raised by conservationists and Native Hawaiian groups to decide whether the US$298-million project can break ground later this year.

With more than twice the aperture of existing solar telescopes (see ‘Eyes on the Sun’), the 4-metre ATST will be large enough to tease out small structures on the Sun, particularly magnetic flux tubes — the hitherto unseen precursors to sunspots. Sunspots, in turn, give rise to giant coronal loops and flares, which can unleash bursts of radiation and cause magnetic disturbances that sometimes threaten spacecraft, communication networks and power grids.

More at Nature News, h/t to Leif Svalgaard

More on ATST here.

Render of proposed ATST facility on Haleakalā

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72 thoughts on “High hopes for the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope

  1. Funny how we know it all about the Sun (when climate change is involved) unless we don’t (when a new ‘scope must be built) .

    Funny also how “conservationists” are invariably against the betterment of humanity. Shadows of Mt Graham? Btw did those squirrels die for real?

  2. Dotterels being vibrated in their nests by construction? – pulease!
    White painted building on top of massive snow capped mountain insulting sacred site? – pulease!
    I have been up to the observatory, and the objections seem very forced and tenuous to me

  3. Environmentalists object to everything so ignore them. We do need to understand our nearest star and this will be a big leap forward.

  4. Oh go on then Scientists, mention Climate Change in your ‘goals’ and you will find the environmental objections dissipate….. the photo needs a windmill.

  5. Perish the thought that an environmentalist migtht actually learn something about the thing that powers all of it.

  6. What is point in looking at the Sun when everyone knows it is humanity to blame when it comes to global warming. It is little wonder the environmentalists are up in arms. We need to build temples to Gaia not science.

  7. “Why Haleakala? Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea are both much higher.”

    Probably a more desirable neighbourhood for support staff.

  8. What better example that demonstrates that environmentalists hate science? Roll on Agenda 21, boy have they really got it in for the USA & it’s people!!!! :-(

  9. Why Haleakala? Maybe because it’s just 3,055 meters high – high enough for good observations but low enough that human crews can work uninterrupted there while testing out new complicated telescope designs (maintenance people at the higher sites – Mauna Kea, the Cerro Paranal in the case of ESA) are usually only allowed 30 minutes or so on the site; after they tend to forget their sonic screwdrivers.
    BTW: Has anyone told “spiritually”-minded people that the best way to honor a so-called Sacred Place might to be set up an observatory? Looking out at the universe, widening our horizons, getting to know how the world actually works… (Sacrificing virgins is more fun, admittedly.)
    Then again, you could of course Occupy Halekala. If an officer comes up and tells you to “more your ass, dude,” just answer: “You have just insulted my most sacred place”.

  10. Had the environmentalists and other organizations dedicated to stopping progress along with the politicians and judges that enable them been around at the beginning of mankind the world’s human population would be very small and locked in the stone age, barely living beyond their teens. Fortunately they weren’t because they were too busy surviving.

  11. $300 million (w/o cost overruns, what’re the odds of that) for a telescope in this economy?

    Put it on hold. Spend the money on medical research or something more immediately productive. Or make it an international project with equal participation by everyone. I mean if there’s any practical benefit to be had like better warnings for CMEs (very doubtful IMO) then then every nation enjoys the benefits. I’m sick and tired of being the friggin’ scapegoat for all the problems in the world and while things we pay for, like this telescope, get ignored.

  12. I am left to wonder, how a terrestrial based telescope, can provide better observations than the various space orbital observation telescopes/instruments currently in sol orbit? Perhaps someone else can explain this? GK

  13. On a side note, I did not realize that Maui had a peak of just over 10k feet, and that it received snow.

    Silly me thought that only the big island had that honor.

  14. A few comments from someone that has been associated with many of these observatories:

    There are many observatories on the top of Mauna Kea now, which has sparked considerable resistance from environmentalists and Native Hawaiians to more. There are far fewer on Haleakala presently.

    The higher altitude of Mauna Kea is a problem. Going up from sea level, you have to stop for over an hour at about 2800m to acclimate a bit. People who stay at the summit for extended periods sleep at the 2800m facility and don’t go below that for the duration. I found myself unable to do simple math when I was up in the observatories there.

    Why not space-based telescopes? Because you can get equivalent performance for about 1/10 the cost with a (much larger) ground-based telescope. You won’t hear it from NASA, but the only real reason for space-based telescopes is to look at wavelengths that don’t make it through the earth’s atmosphere. Note that the new Webb space telescope is for the infrared wavelengths that don’t make it to the earth’s surface.

  15. (SarcOn) The actual telescope is projected to cost $3.65Million in 2010 Dollars. The life support and leisure facility for SES and GS-99 Federal Employess and their extended families is currently projected to cost $2.79Million in 2010 Dollars. The Presidental Palace planned for visiting heads of state is expected to cost $1.3Million in 2010 Dollars. The Permanent Temporary Quarters for fulltime federal and contractor employees is expected to cost $.591Million in 2010 Dollars (FEMA has agreed to donate slightly used Katrina Trailers, the cost reflected hear is for transport and installation). The EPA’s Regualtory Life Support and Preservation Units for Hawaiian Snow Worms unique to the summit of Haleakala, and CO2 scrubbers need to eliminate the AGW threat created by the resident and visiting workforce, are expected to cost $250Million in 2010 Dollars. The remaining money will be used to payoff key leadership of union contractors who will perform the day-to-day site cleanup during contruction, and defend federal contracting officers if, and when, they are prosecuted. NOT: The costs reflected here are expected to quadruple in the next year due to the downturn in the world economy and the resulting rise in hotel rates in Honalulu. (SarcOff)

  16. omnologos says:
    Funny also how “conservationists” are invariably against the betterment of humanity. Shadows of Mt Graham? Btw did those squirrels die for real?

    It is actually pretty funny. It turned out that the act of studying the squirrel populations reduced the populations. Once they got the construction go ahead, and quit studying the squirrels intensively, the populations recovered.

  17. Why not Leadville, Colorado? It is at 10,152 feet. Already has infrastructure in place. Maybe to far north or not exotic enough location.

  18. @ nc
    “Why not Leadville, Colorado? It is at 10,152 feet. Already has infrastructure in place. Maybe to far north or not exotic enough location.”

    May be that daytime airflow over Haleakala is more stable and allows finer detail viewing.

  19. Curt says:
    October 13, 2011 at 8:43 am

    Why not space-based telescopes? Because you can get equivalent performance for about 1/10 the cost with a (much larger) ground-based telescope. You won’t hear it from NASA, but the only real reason for space-based telescopes is to look at wavelengths that don’t make it through the earth’s atmosphere. Note that the new Webb space telescope is for the infrared wavelengths that don’t make it to the earth’s surface.

    Yes, I understand that, but we already have satellite instruments trained on sol (SOHO). These observation platforms are much closer. Are you saying that SOHO was a needless expense and should have been based on earth. I am just trying to find the logic… is all. Don’t we already have 3D, 24/7, coverage of the sun, up close?! Why the need for more redundancy? GK

  20. G. Karst says:
    October 13, 2011 at 10:26 am
    Don’t we already have 3D, 24/7, coverage of the sun, up close?! Why the need for more redundancy? ”

    The space telescopes are much too small to give the spatial resolution needed for studying the fine-structure of the magnetic field and associated phenomena.

  21. G. Karst says:
    October 13, 2011 at 10:26 am
    Don’t we already have 3D, 24/7, coverage of the sun, up close?! Why the need for more redundancy?

    The space telescopes are much too small to give the spatial resolution needed for studying the fine-structure of the magnetic field and associated phenomena.

  22. Haleakala means: The House of the Sun.
    Maui is the name of a Demigod, that at one point lassoed, the Sun.
    Now you know why the Sun telescope is located on the third highest peak, in the Hawaiian Islands.
    Hawaii is the worst place in the nation to do business, so the job will get delayed. Might be a Sun Tax to be paid out of this project. Part of the funding is covering the cost of looking for the demigod Maui, ya know for more input into the EIS.
    With the ski areas opening up in Colorado, and that snowy photo of Haleakala, I had to look to see if there was snow on the mountain today… nope not today.

  23. omnologos
    October 13, 2011 at 12:18 am
    ###

    The Mt Graham red squirrel is not much different then any other red squirrel. The only limits on population are food availability and to a much lesser extent predations. It also seems that the hyperactive studying of the squirrel population by researchers trying to use the squirrels “plight” as justification for stopping the telescope had more of an effect then any construction.

  24. Actually, the biggest hurdles to new construction on the islands aren’t conservationists per se (as in “nature-good/technology bad) but those who represent the native religion (musn’t upset Pele) and established endangered species requirements (USGov). The biggest hurdle often is certifying that there are no silver swords on the planned site.

    And I don’t have any idea where the notion of “snow capped mountain” comes from. I have been on top of Mauna Loa and at the AMOS site in December and February and it gets mighty cold at 3 in the morning, but it doesn’t snow very often and it’s almost always well above freezing by noon.

    And, yes, Mauna Loa itself (the active crater) is higher than the Maui site, but the observatory site (obviously at a bit of a distance from the active crater) is only about 350 meters higher. And getting building approval on the Mauna Loa site is little easier than on the Maui site for religious reasons.

    The Maui site is strongly funded by the military while the Mauna Loa site is mainly academic. Who’s funding ATST and are there significant military uses for, for instance, improving space weather prediction for satellite operators (i.e., the military)

    Finally, Maui is a much more accessible and well developed site with facilities much more conducive to extended observation campaigns. Mauna Loa is a bleak outpost at best. After building the telescope we’d want to operate it pretty much every day, right?

  25. Leif Svalgaard says:
    October 13, 2011 at 10:45 am

    The space telescopes are much too small to give the spatial resolution needed for studying the fine-structure of the magnetic field and associated phenomena.

    Thanks, but haven’t we now come full circle (in logic). You are saying we shouldn’t have invested treasure in SOHO, as a ground based telescope would have been cheaper and better, had we just built it first. Why didn’t we just do that? Or conversely, why didn’t we build a better SOHO. See the logic problem? GK

  26. G. Karst says:
    October 13, 2011 at 11:46 am
    You are saying we shouldn’t have invested treasure in SOHO, as a ground based telescope would have been cheaper and better, had we just built it first. Why didn’t we just do that? Or conversely, why didn’t we build a better SOHO. See the logic problem? GK
    No logic problem. SOHO and SDO observe at wavelengths not accessible from the ground and provide continuous data [also not possible from the ground]. And we have built a better SOHO. It is called SDO. It is not possible to place a 4 meter telescope in space, so we need one on the ground.

  27. G. Karst says:
    October 13, 2011 at 11:46 am
    You are saying we shouldn’t have invested treasure in SOHO, as a ground based telescope would have been cheaper and better, had we just built it first. Why didn’t we just do that? Or conversely, why didn’t we build a better SOHO. See the logic problem? GK

    No logic problem. SOHO and SDO observe at wavelengths not accessible from the ground and provide continuous data [also not possible from the ground]. And we have built a better SOHO. It is called SDO. It is not possible to place a 4 meter telescope in space, so we need one on the ground.

  28. We had some high SSNs recently, but according to latest data from WSO-Stanford the Polar Fields are stubbornly stuck somewhere around 50% of their high:

    http://www.vukcevic.talktalk.net/LFC6.htm

    Neither hemisphere shows any sign of an imminent reversal, so SC24 max isn’t in a hurry.
    Looks like Dr. Hathaway has revised his prediction upwards.

    We strongly disagreed in 2006 but now we are in harmony, science and astrology like a happy couple walking arm in arm towards the SC24max. Heavenly!

    http://www.vukcevic.talktalk.net/NFC7a.htm

  29. #
    Danny V. says:
    October 13, 2011 at 5:03 am

    “Why Haleakala? Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea are both much higher.”

    Probably a more desirable neighbourhood for support staff.
    #

    The summit of Mauna Kea isalready fully developed. Mauna Loa is still an active volcano.

  30. Merrick — All but one of the astronomical observatories on the Big Island are at the peak of Mauna Kea, at a 4200m elevation. There is a solar observatory on the flank of Mauna Loa, at an elevation of 3440m. Mauna Kea is dormant, so they can build on the peak. It is also “upwind” of Mauna Loa, so can get more precipitation (usually below the summit). I know people who ski Mauna Kea most winters. These mountains are bigger than Haleakala, so somewhat of a further drive from low-altitude communities, but the observatories are staffed full time.

    The summit of Haleakala is fascinating. Unlike the Big Island volcanoes, it is not reliably above the cloud cover. However, the clouds almost never make it to the downwind (southwest) end of the summit. In the span of about 100m, you go from jungle to desert. I trust they are planning to place the observatory at the desert end of the summit…

  31. vuk, you strongly disaggred in years other than 2006.

    Suggest you plot your error of estimation

  32. Leif Svalgaard says:
    October 13, 2011 at 12:17 pm
    “It is not possible to place a 4 meter telescope in space…..”
    ======
    Now that, sounds like a challenge :)

  33. steven mosher says:
    October 13, 2011 at 2:19 pm
    ………….
    Mr. Mosher
    It is your desire to fault a non-scientist which leads you to be the erroneous one.
    – I am referring to my personal disagreement with Dr. Hathaway in correspondence dated late 2006 relating to course of the sunspot activity, which I occasionally refer to in my posts.
    – If you look at the graphs again, perhaps I can help you understand what they are about:
    – Blue equation (& graph) gives approximate periodicity (which is ~11 years and known anyway) but it was first time shown that it can be linked accurately, by a simple equation, to the orbital periods of the two major gas giants.
    – Red equation (& graph) gives approximate amplitude of the peak values, which again is the resultant of planetary orbits’ sub-harmonics.
    – So no attempt is made or claimed that SSN will have an accurate value at any time, and no other SSN values are considered beyond non smoothed SC max approximation .
    As Dr.S. often says the sun is a messy place, so the SSN is again only an approximation of solar magnetic activity over a large area and is subject to many uncertainties.
    What is more certain is the sun’s polar magnetic field, which is not subject to any of the major disruptions observed in mid and low latitudes.
    There, for these tiny areas http://wso.stanford.edu/gifs/WSOPole.png prediction can be far more accurate, and I agree with Dr. S. that polar fields are precursor to the SSN, but there is where the unfortunate Dr. H. failed dismally. Polar prediction (and planetary link?) comes into its own. You may be surprised to learn that no one has yet matched accuracy of my prediction

    http://www.vukcevic.talktalk.net/LFC2.htm

    with the highest correlation in the solar events.
    In your field of activity (CO2 and the AGW climate change) there is no need to get concerned with the solar matters, since you (meaning certain group of climate concerned people and scientists) do not think or are ready to consider, that the sun has any role to play.

  34. What Upcountrywater said. Maui, the Hawai’ian Superman (a song by Iz). It is just so right for a sun observatory there.

    And yes, it gets snow. We saw snowflakes and hail on June 2nd this year while up there. That was while they were getting a couple inches on the Big Island.

  35. The moon would be higher.
    Oops….forgot we don’t have a manned space program.
    Maybe we can outsource it to China.

  36. steven mosher says:
    October 13, 2011 at 12:21 pm
    Leif, how did your conference go?
    I attended three consecutive conferences:

    http://shinecon.org/Current%20Meeting.htm

    http://ssnworkshop.wikia.com/wiki/Home

    http://iaus286.iafe.uba.ar/

    It would be O/T to comment in detail, but my take aways were
    1) The PMOD TSI team has now admitted [as I have told them years ago] that their instrument has uncompensated degradation and that there now is no evidence that TSI this past minimum was any lower than at previous minima
    2) There is growing acceptance of the observation that the sunspot number underwent artificial inflation around 1945, basically scuttling the notion of a Modern Grand Maximum
    3) That there is a distinct possibility of significantly lower solar activity in the coming years, but probably not a new Grand Minimum [unless Livingston & Penn are correct].
    4) A rich lode of stellar cycles are being discovered with as yet unrealized potential for application to the sun.

    M.A.Vukcevic says:
    October 13, 2011 at 1:10 pm
    Looks like Dr. Hathaway has revised his prediction upwards.
    For the gazillionth time: Hathaway does not issue predictions based on theory or such, but a fit of current observations to a ‘standard’ typical solar cycle with the goal of showing what the current conditions portend. Hence the ‘forecast’ will change from day to day, just like the usual weather forecast.

    Dave Worley says:
    October 13, 2011 at 6:02 pm
    “It is not possible to place a 4 meter telescope in space, so we need one on the ground.”
    Think again.

    With current proven technology ready to deploy in a few years time.

  37. Siting rationale:

    Haleakala is the site of the Mees Solar Observatory, operated by the Institute for Astronomy of the University of Hawaii. Haleakala is the mountain that mainly forms the island of Maui in the Pacific Ocean, and is classified as a Pacific Ocean island mountain.

    ….got it – Maui Wowie, white sand beaches etc. Nice gig for an astronomer if you can get it!

  38. Thanks Leif,

    Sounds productive, It will be interesting to see what happends to curve fitters when the observations get corrected

  39. vuk

    ” So no attempt is made or claimed that SSN will have an accurate value at any time, and no other SSN values are considered beyond non smoothed SC max approximation .”

    so no falsifiable claim. Ok, just curves on the page. nice.

  40. steven mosher says:
    October 13, 2011 at 9:26 pm
    It will be interesting to see what happends to curve fitters when the observations get corrected
    They will adjust their fits and claim even better agreement :-)

  41. steven mosher says:
    October 13, 2011 at 9:29 pm
    Ok, just curves on the page.

    Mr. Mosher
    Those are not just curves on the page,
    The equation is statement of two astronomic facts. The equation could have been written by any astronomer since Ptolemy, or even earlier (since the ancient Greek and Hellenistic mathematicians used the geometric chord) and it would still show exactly the same curve on the page, the equation is timeless.
    For a man of science you do show some surprising lack of intuition, since your statement shows an obvious knowledge deficiency in the field .

  42. Leif Svalgaard says:
    October 13, 2011 at 6:36 pm
    For the gazillionth time: Hathaway does not issue predictions based on theory or such…..

    Oah poor Dr. Hathaway, you got to feel sorry for him.
    In 2006 he said: “Solar cycle 24, due to peak in 2010 or 2011 looks like its going to be one of the most intense cycles since record-keeping began almost 400 years ago”
    ”We don’t know why this works. The underlying physics is a mystery. But it does work.”

    http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2006/21dec_cycle24/

    Now has a good scientific explanation for his misfortune:
    “The other geomagnetic precursor (he having in mind one ‘don’t know why this works’)
    method appear to be unduly impacted by the Halloween of 2003 and gave larger cycles.”

    http://solarscience.msfc.nasa.gov/papers/hathadh/2010HathawayB.pdf

  43. M.A.Vukcevic says:
    October 14, 2011 at 1:20 am
    Dr. Hathaway, you got to feel sorry for him.
    Back in 2006 that was a true prediction. The current ‘forecasts’ are not, they are simply fits to the current data. Know the difference.

  44. Ref -M.A.Vukcevic says:
    October 14, 2011 at 1:20 am

    “Let s/he who is without sin cast the first stone”
    “Never trust a person who is perfect”
    “Everyone makes educated guesses”
    “The world is but a stage”
    “Let sleeping dogs lie”

  45. Leif Svalgaard says:
    October 13, 2011 at 10:02 pm
    steven mosher says:
    October 13, 2011 at 9:26 pm
    It will be interesting to see what happends to curve fitters when the observations get corrected
    They will adjust their fits and claim even better agreement :-)

    No correction planed to the Wilcox Solar observatory’s measurement results as far as I know, perhaps Dr. Svalgaard knows differently.

    http://www.vukcevic.talktalk.net/LFC2.htm

  46. You know, up until Copenhagen in 2009, $298 million sounded like alot of money to me. But the Copenhagen Treaty wanted 1% of GDP every year. That’s $150 billion, EVERY YEAR.

    Now when I hear numbers like $298 million, that’s chicken feed.

  47. M.A.Vukcevic says:
    October 14, 2011 at 4:01 am

    We, commoners, need to know an extrapolation of your curve (as it has proved, until now, being precise), because it shows an almost “dying Sun”, presumably at the “ER”. :-)

  48. Leif Svalgaard says:
    October 14, 2011 at 3:31 am
    Back in 2006 that was a true prediction. The current ‘forecasts’ are not, they are simply fits to the current data. Know the difference.

    Hi doc
    The answer to what it is, Dr. Hathaway is very explicit:

    have you looked at it, it says in plain English:
    Cycle 24 Sunspot Number Prediction (October 2011)

    Enneagram says:
    October 14, 2011 at 6:00 am
    …..
    It is on the way up in about 30 years time, some time in 2040s.

  49. M.A.Vukcevic says:
    October 14, 2011 at 6:47 am
    The answer to what it is, Dr. Hathaway is very explicit:
    That may be. However, you are not listening. I’m telling you that Hathaway simply fits the current data to a standard solar cycle curve, so is not predicting in any real sense from any theory or causes. He may not care about the difference between this and a true prediction, but we do, don’t we. What he does [like you] is just curve fitting.
    As per Hathaway: ” We then use the shape of the sunspot cycle as described by Hathaway, Wilson, and Reichmann [Solar Physics 151, 177 (1994)] and determine a starting time for the cycle by fitting the data to produce a prediction of the monthly sunspot numbers through the next cycle.”

  50. Of course I am listening, I find Dr. H’s turn of phrase amusing, but let’s leave him to do his job as best as he can.
    I find your paper

    http://www.leif.org/research/Reduction%20of%20Spatially%20Resolved%20Magnetic%20Field%20by%20Scattered%20Light.pdf

    of some interest, had a quick look and from my point of view it is a useful development. Once there is a consensus about accuracy of the past measurements, than it will be possible to be a bit more certain about the build up of the magnetic field in the polar region: a random accumulation or some yet unknown process.

  51. Leif Svalgaard says:
    October 13, 2011 at 12:17 pm
    It is not possible to place a 4 meter telescope in space, so we need one on the ground.

    No, it is just insanely expensive:
    The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), previously known as Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST) is a planned next-generation space telescope, optimized for observations in the infrared. The main technical features are a large and very cold 6.5 meter diameter mirror. The latest estimated price tag for the telescope is now $6.8 billion.

  52. Leif Svalgaard says:
    October 13, 2011 at 12:17 pm
    It is not possible to place a 4 meter telescope in space, so we need one on the ground.

    Not possible? No, it is just insanely expensive:
    The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), previously known as Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST) is a planned next-generation space telescope, optimized for observations in the infrared. The main technical features are a large and very cold 6.5 meter diameter mirror. The latest estimated price tag for the telescope is now $6.8 billion.

  53. Tony Mach says:
    October 14, 2011 at 8:53 pm
    No, it is just insanely expensive:
    The requirements are quite different. A solar telescope collects a LOT of energy (concentrated at the focal plane) which has to be actively got rid off lest the optics melts. This is hard to do in space. The issue was if we could do this for beginning operation in a few years and we just can’t.

  54. Leif Svalgaard says:
    October 14, 2011 at 9:31 pm
    This is hard to do in space. The issue was if we could do this for beginning operation in a few years and we just can’t.

    Let’s say it is hard to do and currently financially not possible to put such a large solar observatory in space (and it would be rather stupid to do this research in space when you can do them on earth), but it would be physically possible. I just took issue with “not possible” statement.

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