China launches space observatory to study solar events

The Advanced Space-Based Solar Observatory (ASO-S) took off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre situated in Inner Mongolia

October 11, 2022 by Sandipan Talukdar
China space observatory
Representational image. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In yet another milestone achieved by China in space science, its first dedicated space observatory was successfully launched on October 9. The primary objective of the mission, according to Chinese scientists, is to closely observe events in the Sun. Experts believe that it is an initiation of a field of world-leading probes.

The Advanced Space-Based Solar Observatory, the ASO-S, took off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre situated in Inner Mongolia, reports say. It had already entered the orbit and its solar panels have been unfurled. The observatory is also known as Kuafu-1, which represents a giant in Chinese mythology who wished to capture and tame the Sun.

The observatory weighing 888 kilograms aims at observing solar flares and the coronal mass ejection on the Sun from a distance of 720 kilometers from Earth’s surface. The observatory also aims to study the magnetic field that drives these events. Notably, these violent solar events trigger hazardous environments in space that can disrupt satellite services and power grids on Earth. The Chinese solar mission aims to understand the links between the phenomena.

Solar flares are the intense eruption of electromagnetic radiation in the atmosphere of the Sun. A solar flare can occur when magnetic energy built up in the solar environment suddenly gets released. Solar flares are massive bursts of light. Solar flares are often accompanied by coronal mass ejection. The Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) is a massive release of plasma (the fourth fundamental state of matter after the solid, liquid and gaseous states) and magnetic field from the corona of the Sun. The outermost layer of the Sun’s atmosphere is its Corona which is made up of plasma. The CME is the emission of billions of tons of coronal materials.

The ASO-S or the Kuafu 1 observatory took over a decade to complete, according to Gan Weiqun, the chief scientist of the mission. This latest endeavor is like crossing a milestone by Chinese scientists, because before that researchers were restricted to only ground observatories. These include a solar telescope (35 centimeters) situated in the suburbs of Beijing and another one (1 meter) in Yunnan. These are able to reveal only a partial picture of the Sun because a portion of the solar emissions is absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere.

The turbulent solar events in the form of solar flares and the CMEs are expected to peak by the year 2025. Now, the Chinese observatory will join the Parker Solar Probe of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), USA, as well as the European Space Agency (ESA)’s Solar Orbiter. These observatories are already in orbit around the Earth and the Sun.

The Chinese observatory has three main instruments on board. The first is a magnetograph, which is to study the magnetic field of the Sun, the second is an X-ray imager which will detect the high energy radiations emanating from the solar flares, and the third one is a coronagraph, designed to monitor the outer atmosphere or the corona of the Sun. The mission scientists expect that these instruments will function in unison to produce high-quality observations. Zhu Cheng, the chief engineer of the observatory, said that the ASO-S platform is also the world’s first solar telescope in space that can simultaneously monitor solar flares and coronal mass ejections.