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(Photo: NASA/SDO/AIA/Goddard Space Flight Center)
China has successfully launched its first dedicated orbiting solar telescope. The project is officially known as ASO-S, the Advanced Space-based Solar Observatory. Once fully operational, it will monitor space weather to teach us solar physics and protect “valuable assets in space.”

ASO-S also passes Quafu-1, after a giant in Chinese mythology who chased the Sun, wanting to capture and tame it. The satellite will observe from a sun-synchronous orbit 720 km above the Earth’s surface.

As part of its 11-year solar cycle, the Sun produces phenomena such as sunspots, solar flares, and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). ASO-S’s prime directive is to study the fundamental physics of the Sun by observing these flares as they happen. The probe will take simultaneous readings from all its instruments, allowing scientists to better understand “the buildup of magnetic energy and its eruptive release during flares and CMEs.”

The mission will last at least four years, said Weiqun Gan, an astrophysicist at the Purple Mountain Observatory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Nanjing and the mission’s chief scientist. This means it will operate during the 2024–25 peak of our current solar cycle.

ASO-S for Solar Weather Studies, Phys

While China has used single-instrument solar probes before, Kuafu-1 outdoes them all with its suite of three instruments. The orbiter carries a “Full Disk Vector Magnetograph (FMG), a Hard X-ray Imager (HXI) and the Lyman-Alpha Solar Telescope (LST).” according to CAS.

Artist's concept of the ASO-S "Quafu-1" solar observatory.  Image: CAS

Artist’s concept of the ASO-S “Kuafu-1” solar observatory. Image: CAS

With these instruments, the orbiter can study the mid-solar corona, a region where solar storms originate. No other solar observatory, ground-based or in orbit, has yet explored this region in the ultraviolet band. But the ASO-S orbiter can work alongside other orbiting solar observatories, such as NASA’s Parker Solar Probe or the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter.

While operating, ASO-S will produce about five hundred gigabytes of data each day of its four-year operational life. We can’t wait to see what scientists make of it once they can feed that data to their supercomputer or AI of choice. “In these peak years, we can see a lot of eruptions,” Gann said. What we learn can help us refine our models of relativity and quantum physics.

It will take four to six months for the ASO-S team to put the probe into operation. Then, like JWST, it will be open to the public.

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