World’s largest telescope array is almost ready to stare straight into the sun

China's newest telescope setup could help warn us about future solar flares and plasma eruptions.
Aerial view of the construction site of the Solar Radio Telescope on November 13, 2022 in Daocheng County, Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province of China. VCG/VCG via Getty Images

China just completed construction on what is now the world’s largest telescope array at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. The country plans to aim it at our sun as part of what one expert is calling “the golden age of solar astronomy.” As reported in Nature earlier today, the Daocheng Solar Radio Telescope (DSRT) cost 100 million yuan ($14 million USD), and is comprised of over 300 antenna dishes situated in a 3 kilometer (1.87 miles) circumference formation. Initial testing will begin in June 2024, and will focus on an upcoming increase in solar activity over the next few years, particularly on how solar eruptions affect Earth.

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The terrestrially situated DSRT joins NASA’s Parker Solar Probe and the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter, launched in 2018 and 2020 respectively, in ongoing efforts to study the sun’s complexities. Radio telescopes such as the DSRT are especially helpful when studying activity in the sun’s upper atmosphere, or corona, such as solar flares. Another solar weather event, a coronal mass ejection (CME), involves hot plasma eruptions that release high-energy particles which then can travel to Earth. This radiation often damages power grids and satellites—such as what happened in February 2022 when a solar storm blasted 40 Starlink satellites out of orbit.

“China now has instruments that can observe all levels of the sun, from its surface to the outermost atmosphere,” Hui Tian, a solar physicist at Beijing’s Peking University, told Nature.

[Related: How worried should we be about solar flares and space weather?]

Compared to similar telescopic arrays, the DSRT will be more finely tuned, and thus potentially capture weaker signals from high-energy particles emitted during CME events. As the sky above us becomes increasingly—and sometimes problematically—crowded by satellites, developing more reliable, accurate, and detailed analysis of solar activity will be critical to further expansion.