New telescope to help predict solar storms

The new Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope in Australia could save the world billions as an accurate early-warning system that forecasts damaging solar systems.

Solar storms, also known as geomagnetic storms, cause disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field and can seriously damage communication satellites, electric power grids and GPS navigation systems. One prediction estimates that a large solar storm could cost the US approximately $2 trillion in damages to vital communications and power networks.

The new radio telescope, located in the remote outback of Western Australia will give some of the best views of the Sun and should be able to track solar storms as they emerge, and before they reach Earth. The MWA is likely to be put to use straight away as the Sun is about to enter one of its periods of unsettled solar activity.

“The MWA will keep watch on the Sun during the upcoming period of maximum solar activity.  It has the potential to deliver very real and immediate benefits to the entire global population. It is a tremendous achievement and testament to the innovative technologies that have been developed to support this instrument,” said Steven Tingay, director of the MWA and professor of radio astronomy at Curtin University, Australia.

The striking telescope, which is made up of a network of spider-like antennas, will collect radio waves from the sky and produce a new image every few seconds. The MWA will also allow scientists to study the early history of the Universe, perhaps shedding new light on how gravity and dark matter were formed.

“Understanding how the dramatic transformation took place soon after the Big Bang, over 13 billion years ago, is the final frontier for astrophysicists like me,” says Professor Tingay. 

“Preliminary testing, using only a fraction of the MWA’s capability, has already achieved results that are on par with the best results ever achieved in the search for the first stars and galaxies.”

13 institutions from four different countries; USA, India, Australia and New Zealand, have played a part in the MWA project which has taken 8 years to build. Situated almost 800 kilometres from Perth, the telescope covers an area of 3km in the sparsely populated Shire of Murchison.