USI signs as a co-founder of the European Solar Telescope Foundation

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EST design and artist impressions (©EST)
EST design and artist impressions (©EST)

Università della Svizzera italiana (USI), representing also the USI-affiliated Istituto Ricerche solari Aldo e Cele Daccé (IRSOL), is among 9 institutions from 7 European countries that signed the deed of the Canarian Foundation for the European Solar Telescope (EST).

The signing took place on July 25, 2023, in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, where USI was represented by Svetlana Berdyugina , who is IRSOL’s director and adjunct professor at the USI Faculty of Informatics and Euler Institute. The EST Foundation grants legal character to the project consortium and paves the path for the future EST construction.

The founding institutions that will lead the project to the next phase of development are from the Czech Republic, Germany, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Switzerland contributes to the EST Foundation through USI and IRSOL, which is affiliated with USI and has been engaged in the project since its initiation in 2008.

USI and IRSOL have significantly contributed to the EST project, including the leadership of the EST Board of Directors (Vice-Chair Prof. Benedetto Lepori ), contributions to EST scientific requirements, and novel concept and prototype development for high-precision and high-accuracy solar spectropolarimetry, based on the worldwide unique expertise of IRSOL in this area. Currently, IRSOL operates the 0.45 m solar telescope in Locarno (Switzerland) equipped with the unique instrumentation: high-precision Zurich Imaging Polarimeter (ZIMPOL) based on fast polarimetric modulation, high-resolution spectrograph, multi-wavelength Fabry-Perot Interferometer (FPI) and high-accuracy Slow Polarization Modulation (SPM) telescope unit. These instruments combined is a unique solar infrastructure in Switzerland and beyond, allowing for unprecedented studies of the solar magnetism. ZIMPOL and SPM have been also deployed at the current Europe’s largest solar telescope GREGOR at the Observatorio del Teide on Tenerife (Spain, operated by Germany) and similar technologies are foreseen for EST. In addition to USI and IRSOL, Swiss contributions to the EST project have been also provided by the Haute Ecole d’Ingénierie et de Gestion du Canton de Vaud (HEIG-VD) in adaptive optics and Swiss National Supercomputing Center (CSCS) in high-performance computing, funded by the Horizon 2020 SOLARNET cooperation.

The preliminary design phase of the EST, which was funded by the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme, has recently been completed. Now, the establishment of the EST Foundation marks a crucial milestone in advancing the project towards the construction phase. One of the primary objectives of the foundation is to create a European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ERIC), which will bring together the national ministries of the partner countries. The EST ERIC will be the legal entity responsible for overseeing all aspects of the construction and operation of this large research infrastructure.

USI and IRSOL are taking a significant step forward by joining the EST Foundation. This action gives the participating institutions a decision-making power over all future scientific, technological and industrial aspects of the project. On the EST Foundation Board of Trustees, USI and IRSOL will be represented by Prof. Svetlana Berdyugina.

An unprecedented technological challenge

The European Solar Telescope is set to become the largest solar telescope ever built in Europe. With its 4.2-meter primary mirror, state-of-the-art technology, and specialised instrumentation suite, EST will provide astronomers with an unrivalled tool for observing the Sun. This solar telescope will be constructed in the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory, located on the island of La Palma (Spain) and renowned worldwide as a top-tier site for astronomical observations.

EST was included on the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) Roadmap in 2016 and is therefore considered a strategic research infrastructure for Europe. Also, the most recent Astronet Infrastructure Roadmap 2022-2035 recognizes EST as one of the three top priorities among mid-sized ground-based astronomical infrastructures, with first light expected by 2030. The Swiss -Astronomy Roadmap for Research and Infrastructure 2025-2028 and beyond- by the Swiss Astronomy and Astrophysics Community also recommends EST as a medium-size facility for financial support (Recommendation 6). Exploration of solar big data, that will be recorded by EST at unprecedented rate for solar physics, requires innovations in computational and data science - the areas where USI Faculty of Informatics at a forefront in research and education.

One of the EST primary objectives is to improve our understanding of the Sun by observing its magnetic fields in unprecedented detail. EST will be able to uncover signals currently hidden in the noise and reveal the existence of unknown, tiny magnetic structures. By studying the magnetic and dynamic coupling of the solar atmosphere, EST will provide valuable insights into the mechanisms underlying solar flares and coronal mass ejections. These phenomena determine the so-called space weather, which has a strong influence on our technological society.

The optical configuration and instrumentation of EST have been meticulously designed to capture the interactions between the different atmospheric layers of the Sun. Additionally, a comprehensive set of instruments will be installed to enable simultaneous observations across multiple wavelengths with high polarimetric precision and accuracy. This unique capability will give EST a higher efficiency compared to existing or future telescopes, whether ground-based or space-borne. The largest solar telescope in Europe is a technological challenge that, once built, will keep Europe at the forefront of solar physics research and instrument development.

Founding members of the EST Foundation

Astronomickíoe Éstav AV ČR, V. V. I. (Czech Republic)

Leibniz-Institut für Sonnenphysik KIS
Max-Planck-Gesellschaft zur Foerderung der Wissenschaften
Astronomical Institute of the Slovak Academy of Sciences (Slovakia)
Agencia Estatal Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (Spain)
Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (Spain)
Università della Svizzera italiana (Switzerland)
Stockholms Universitet (Sweden)
University of Sheffield (UK), representing the United Kingdom Universities Consortium (Aberystwyth, Durham, Exeter, Glasgow, Sheffield and Queen’s University Belfast)