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Star Wars Telescope Used for Solar Study

June 1996

With a telescope from the now defunct Star Wars defense program, a balloon, and Antarctica's 24-hour sun, solar physicists have launched the most detailed study ever of solar flares.

The NSF-funded Flare Genesis Experiment, led by David Rust from the Applied Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins University, took round-the-clock images of the Sun--a feat that is impossible from most places on Earth.

A flare is a magnetic disturbance that starts on the Sun's surface and then explodes, shooting large numbers of electrically charged particles into space. The particles can damage space craft, and they will endanger Mars-bound astronauts.

The Flare Genesis Experiment should show the minute changes in the Sun's magnetic field during the flare buildup, Rust told Space News. Scientists may then be able to use the data to identify solar flare warning signs.

The centerpiece of the experiment, an 80-centimeter telescope, was originally built to detect missiles for a Star Wars project called Starlab. Rust acquired the equipment simply by asking for it at the right time. He then converted it for use as a balloon borne telescope. "It's perhaps the most complex balloon package that's ever flown," he told Science News.

The balloon and telescope circumnavigated the globe over Antarctica last January, floating above most of the atmosphere at 125,000 feet. The instruments recorded over 14,000 images which are currently being analyzed.

Log on to Flare Genesis: http://hurlbut.jhuapl.edu:80/FlareGenesis/

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