The astronomy community has a new tool for studying the sun, with the inauguration this week of the world’s largest solar telescope. The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope, located in Maui, Hawai’i, has a 13-foot (4-meter) primary mirror enabling it to see the sun in phenomenal detail.
To celebrate the telescope’s inauguration on August 31, 2022, this week the National Science Foundation (NSF) released a new image of the sun’s chromosphere. This is the part of the sun’s atmosphere that is right above its surface, and the image shows a region 50,000 miles across where temperatures can be as high as 13,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
“NSF’s Inouye Solar Telescope is the world’s most powerful solar telescope that will forever change the way we explore and understand our sun,” said NSF Director, Sethuraman Panchanathan, in a statement about the inauguration. “Its insights will transform how our nation, and the planet, predict and prepare for events like solar storms.”
The construction of the telescope had been a source of controversy due to its location at the summit of the Haleakalā volcano, a sacred site for many native Hawai’ians. There were protests in 2015 and 2017 regarding the use of this sacred land for telescope construction, similar to objections that led to protests against the construction of the planned Thirty Meter Telescope at Mauna Kea.
In going ahead with the construction of the Inouye telescope, the telescope’s leadership has emphasized its debt to the people of Hawai’i, including naming the telescope after former Hawai’ian senator Daniel Inouye, and formed a special working group with Hawai’ian leaders to make compromises like building an area for conducting religious ceremonies at the summit. Some, but not all, opponents of the construction have been satisfied by these efforts.
Representatives of both the scientific and native Hawai’ian communities were present at the inauguration to commemorate the completion of the telescope’s commissioning phase which lasted one year. The Inouye Solar Telescope is operated by the National Solar Observatory, a research center run by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) with a cooperative agreement with the NSF Division of Astronomic Sciences.
“With the world’s largest solar telescope now in science operations, we are grateful for all who make this remarkable facility possible,” said Matt Mountain, AURA President. “In particular we thank the people of Hawai‘i for the privilege of operating from this remarkable site, to the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Congress for their consistent support, and to our Inouye Solar Telescope Team, many of whom have tirelessly devoted over a decade to this transformational project. A new era of Solar Physics is beginning!”