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NJIT researchers awarded $4.6m to unlock mysteries of solar eruptions

National Science Foundation (NSF) awards five-year grant support for Big Bear Solar Observatory research through the maximum of Solar Cycle 25, when the Sun’s explosive activity is expected to peak.

NJIT researchers awarded $4.6m to unlock mysteries of solar eruptions
( A New Jersey Institute of Technology research team led by physics professor Wenda Cao at the university’s Center for Solar Terrestrial Research (CSTR) has been awarded a $4.64 million National Science Foundation grant to continue leading explorations of the Sun’s explosive activity at Big Bear Solar Observatory (BBSO).

The grant marks the largest project that the Solar-Terrestrial Research Program under NSF’s Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences (AGS) supports, extending five more years of baseline funding for all science, instrumentation and education activities at BBSO, located at California’s Big Bear Lake.

The funding supports BBSO research through a key phase of increased activity in the 11-year solar cycle, known as the solar maximum. As more sunspots bubble from the Sun’s surface, sudden releases of energy from the star’s magnetic fields — manifesting as solar flares and coronal mass ejections — are expected to intensify as Solar Cycle 25 reaches its maximum by the summer of 2025. 

“Big Bear Solar Observatory and its Goode Solar Telescope are a unique asset to the solar physics community, allowing for uninterrupted solar flare studies important for understanding our Sun and space weather effects,” said Lisa Winter, NSF-AGS program director for Solar-Terrestrial Research and SHINE. “Support for this observatory is especially important as our Sun enters solar maximum.”

BBSO, operated by NJIT-CSTR, has long been at the forefront of solar research as home to the 1.6-meter clear aperture, off-axis Goode Solar Telescope (GST). GST is the world’s second highest-resolution solar telescope and pathfinder to NSF’s 4-meter Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) stationed in Maui, Hawaii, which became the world’s largest solar telescope after breaking first light in 2020. 

“This grant is essential to maintain the telescope in operation, continue advanced research at BBSO/CSTR, support the current talented engineering team, and educate next generation of scientists and engineers.” said Wenda Cao, BBSO director and member of NSF’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee. “GST was the first facility-class solar telescope built in the U.S. in a generation. Under this grant support, GST will continue to be a major player in high-resolution ground-based observations in the U.S. and worldwide. BBSO will continue playing a crucial and irreplaceable role in science, technology, engineering and education.”

The new grant will enable NJIT-CSTR researchers to continue using GST’s unique imaging capabilities and unapparelled “astronomical seeing” conditions at Big Bear Lake to investigate solar phenomenon as activity on the Sun ramps up. It also promises new GST-DKIST collaborations that could yield unprecedented coverage of solar eruptions as they evolve moment-by-moment.

“The project period covering the maximum of Solar Cycle 25 is an important window to study solar activity, especially solar flares and evolution of solar active regions leading to eruptions,” said Cao, whose team collects a flurry of solar data 24/7 at BBSO that includes measurements of the Sun’s magnetic field, flare energetics in lower solar atmosphere and more, which could potentially offer early warning detection for solar storms back on Earth.

“A notable feature of BBSO is the excellent and stable seeing conditions lasting for hours, which is uniquely required to observe such solar eruptions — key sources of space weather that impact the daily life of humans through effects on communication, transportation, power systems, national defense and space travel.”

Since breaking first light 2009, GST’s observations of the Sun’s surface (photosphere) and lower atmosphere (chromosphere) in visible to near-infrared wavelengths have led to transformative insights into the physics driving solar activity and the nature of the solar atmosphere.

The new grant extends NSF’s previous five-year cycle of funding for BBSO, in which NJIT-CSTR researchers enhanced GST observations with spatial resolution better than 0".1 to answer fundamental questions over the fine-scale energy release in active solar events, including how energy from the Sun is transferred to the star's outermost atmosphere.

BBSO’s GST and other world-class instruments have played a vital role to the international space science community, including providing observational support to NASA missions such as the Parker Solar Probe among others. In 2021, BBSO further bolstered its resources by adding NSF’s Synoptic Optical Long-term Investigations of the Sun (SOLIS) — the most advanced solar telescope for long-term monitoring the “Sun as a whole globe” over the complete solar cycle.

Researchers from 63 universities, observatories and institutes across 21 countries now have access to GST observing time and data, the insights from which have yielded more than 100 peer-reviewed papers since 2018 (including one in Science and six in Nature journals), detailing new discoveries about Earth’s nearest star.

To honor BBSO-driven achievements from the international solar research community, NJIT-CSTR has established the “Goode Solar Telescope Prize.” The inaugural prize was presented to noted solar researcher Young-Deuk Park at the sixth biannual GST Workshop, hosted at the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI) in Daejeon from May 23-26.

The new prize has been created “in recognition of the significant contribution of the BBSO partners and outside communities to the facility.” The GST Prize includes a token cash prize of $1000, which is awarded to “a scientist from around the world for outstanding contributions to BBSO operation, GST science and instrumentation development.”

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NJIT researchers awarded $4.6m to unlock mysteries of solar eruptions


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[] NJIT researchers awarded $4.6m to unlock mysteries of solar eruptions
National Science Foundation (NSF) awards five-year grant support for Big Bear Solar Observatory research through the maximum of Solar Cycle 25, when the Sun’s explosive activity is expected to peak.