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Haleakala Selected for New Solar Telescope

Conceptual design of the ATST, courtesy NSO.

On January 6, the Board of Directors of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) endorsed the recommendation of its Science Working Group to select Haleakala as the preferred site for the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST), which will be the world's largest instrument for studying the Sun's complex magnetic field.

The ATST is an international project led by the U.S. National Solar Observatory, which is operated by AURA, a consortium of 36 universities. The announcement caps a three-year effort that considered 70 potential sites, both in the United States and abroad.

The $161 million ATST has been described as the world's greatest advance in ground-based solar telescope capabilities since Galileo turned his very small telescope toward the Sun 400 years ago. ATST's unique design is optimized to allow precise measurements of solar magnetic fields, particularly under circumstances where they have been, thus far, invisible. This new capability should allow scientists to understand and predict solar variability. Jeffrey Kuhn, solar astronomer and IfA associate director for Haleakala stated, "With the ATST, we will finally have a tool that can measure the magnetism that we believe controls solar fluctuations."

Few areas of astrophysical research are as directly relevant to life on Earth as understanding and predicting the magnetic fluctuations of the Sun. This variability touches Earth in several ways, principally through the Sun's changing brightness, which affects the terrestrial climate both on very long timescales and over periods as short as a few years. Moreover, much Earth-bound technology, from electrical power distribution to cell phone communications, is directly affected by intense solar magnetic storms.

The IfA's Haleakala Observatory Long-Range Development Plan identified the ATST project as a potential new facility (page 5). The project will now undertake a joint state/federal environmental impact statement for a site on Haleakala.