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Pandemic caused delays to telescope

Final review scheduled; work expected to finish in November

The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope is seen at the summit of Haleakala in 2018. The telescope is up for a final review by a scientific panel in preparation for its soft startup later this year, which had been delayed by the pandemic. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The world’s largest solar telescope, located atop Haleakala, will undergo a final review by a scientific panel next week in preparation for its soft startup later this year, which had been delayed by the pandemic.

The more-than-$344 million Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope was slated to be fully operational by June 30, 2020, but COVID-19 put a stop to that. Work at the telescope was completely shut down, and office staff worked from home as much as possible. Scientists and engineers were not able to conduct instrumentation integration and testing work on the summit.

“The pandemic has been and continues to be a major challenge for the DKIST team — a challenge which the team has navigated and handled in a way that makes me proud,” said Thomas Rimmele, associate director of the Inouye solar telescope.

Travel restrictions created major problems, delaying critical components, and preventing the DKIST scientists and engineers located in Boulder, Colo., from traveling to Maui for many months, he added.

But now as things are opening up, work can move forward, with formal construction wrapping up by Nov. 15 and a National Science Foundation-appointed panel conducting a final review, virtually, next week, Rimmele said.

The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope is shown inside its dome atop Haleakala. The photo was taken when the telescope was first pointed at the sun and collected images that made it to the front page of the New York Times and other news outlets around the world, said Thomas Rimmele, associate director of the telescope. — NSF / AURA/NSO photo

“The NSF panel really would have liked to conduct this review on Maui, starting with an in-depth tour of DKIST,” Rimmele added. “Unfortunately, the NSF and the review panel are still not able to travel due to COVID restrictions. The review will have to be conducted virtually. We hope travel for travel members to DKIST will become possible later in the year.”

Rimmele added that they are grateful for the help of the foundation, which gave $18.5 million to the project to cover costs stemming from the pandemic. The majority of the funds were used for wages, he said.

Currently, the telescope’s “main work” remaining includes finishing up the integration and testing of scientific instruments and getting the observatory ready for operations, he said.

The operations commissioning phase begins shortly after Nov. 15. The one-year soft startup involves observations requested by researchers. Crews and scientists will also work to improve and optimize the complex telescope and instrument systems and implement additional instrument capabilities, Rimmele said.

Jeff Kuhn, a professor at the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy and one of the four co-principal investigators for the telescope project, is looking forward to having the telescope up and running, saying that they have been waiting for almost 30 years for it to come together.

“It’s a big deal that will change how we understand the sun in basic ways,” Kuhn said.

Located at the 10,000-foot summit of Haleakala, the telescope relies on a 13-foot mirror and an elaborate cooling system to focus on the sun’s roiling surface. The massive instrument will allow scientists to understand how magnetism changes the brightness of the sun and how that in turn impacts the Earth’s temperatures and climate change.

The telescope will also help scientists keep an eye on the sun and determine when it might create a massive burst of energy that could cause disruptions; in 2017, an eruption of solar energy triggered radio blackouts and caused aviation officials to lose track of aircraft.

In January 2020, the National Science Foundation released first-ever images produced by the Inouye telescope, taken in December 2019, providing the most detailed image of the sun to date.

And, there will be more images to come — Rimmele said the facility has received more than 100 proposals for research for the first four months of observations. A call to the research community for observing proposals was put out in May 2020.

Most of the proposals aim at advancing understanding of the solar magnetic field and solar eruptions.

Solar eruptions such as flares and coronal mass ejections can also cause power grid failures, interruption of communication systems, damage or destruction to satellites and GPS systems and impacts to air traffic.

Rimmele said there is already an “excellent science and engineering team” on Maui to work on the projects, but there will be opportunity for more to join the team as the telescope ramps up operations.

DKIST staff in Boulder and researchers from around the world will also travel to Maui to support telescope operations, Rimmele said.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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