Montana State University

MSU is part of new solar mission orbiting 431 miles up

October 13, 2006 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

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BOZEMAN -- A new satellite the size of a mini-van is orbiting the Earth and carrying three telescopes aimed at the sun. When the door to one of those telescopes opens Oct. 20, it will be a great day at Montana State University, says astrophysicist David McKenzie.

Not only will the x-ray telescope provide unbelievably sharp images, but MSU had a part in it, McKenzie said.

Former MSU graduate students who now work at the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory helped build the x-ray telescope and will help operate it. A team at MSU will help operate it, too. The telescope is part of an international mission called Hinode, the Japanese word for sunrise.

"We are very excited," McKenzie said. "It will bring new data, a new look at the sun and opportunities for our students."

The x-ray telescope will collect information from the corona, the sun's outer atmosphere, and help scientists better understand solar flares, magnetic fields and other aspects of an explosive sun, McKenzie said. Their findings will affect cell phone and satellite service.

"Understanding how magnetic fields behave should help us understand how flares get triggered, how energy gets stored up," McKenzie explained. "If we can understand it, we can predict it. If we can tell a satellite company there will be a flare and it will be the kind that's disruptive to their operation, they can take steps to safeguard instruments, protect the satellite and cancel vacations for key staff."

The Hinode satellite was launched Sept. 22 from Japan. It is now orbiting 431 miles above ground, crossing both poles and making one lap every 95 minutes, McKenzie said. Since it's flying along the edge of day and night, the telescopes will see continuous sun for nine months out of the year. Besides the x-ray telescope, the satellite is carrying a telescope for visible light and one for extreme ultraviolet images. Together the telescopes will show how changes on the sun's surface spread through the solar atmosphere.

X-ray images are photos made with a camera that's sensitive to x-ray light, McKenzie said. X-rays are emitted by materials with very high temperatures, like the plasma on the sun's atmosphere.

"The plasma is also an excellent conductor of electricity, and that means that the material ‛sticks' to magnetic fields," McKenzie said. "So in x-ray images, hot plasma shows up as bright loop-like structures. The location of those bright loops shows us the location and orientation of the magnetic fields."

The x-ray telescope is a joint mission of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, McKenzie said. Hinode builds on two previous missions that involved MSU: Yohkoh and TRACE (Transition Region And Coronal Explorer).

"Yohkoh was a huge mission for MSU because it brought us group members, gave us operational experience, collaborations with other institutions in the U.S. and abroad, trained a bunch of people, including myself, and operated for 10 years where it was originally planned for three," McKenzie said.

McKenzie, physics graduate student Sabrina Savage and a postdoctoral researcher to be hired will help operate Hinode's x-ray telescope over the next three years, McKenzie said. They will travel to Japan at least once during the first year to drive the telescope. During the second year, they'll alternate between MSU and Harvard-Smithsonian. During the third year, they'll stay at MSU.

The former MSU students at Harvard-SAO and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics are Patricia Jibben, Jonathan Cirtain and Mark Weber. Harvard-SAO built the x-ray telescope and asked MSU to help operate it.

"For me, it is very exciting to catch the wheel the second time around-- this time with more involvement, responsibility and contribution," Weber said by e-mail. He worked on Yohkoh while earning his Ph.D. at MSU.

Cirtain said by e-mail, "For a brand new Ph.D., the opportunity to participate in and play a serious role in a major NASA mission is an extreme honor. I take this very seriously."

Jibben said by e-mail, "I am excited that I am working with Hinode during this stage of its operation, and I look forward to the data and new science that will arise from this spectacular observatory."

Hinode is expected to orbit for three years, but no one will prevent it from running longer, McKenzie said.

"The longer it goes, the more data we can take, the more research we can do, the more students we can train," McKenzie said. "That's just fun."

Yohkoh resulted in more than 1,600 scientific publications and at least 53 doctorates before burning up in September 2005 upon re-entering the Earth's atmosphere, McKenzie said. TRACE is still orbiting, with MSU helping operate its telescope.

Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service