SunbYte Logo SmallSunbYte is a University of Sheffield student project which aims to develop innovative, low-cost, high-quality, space-based solar astronomy.

SunbYte (Sheffield University Nova Balloon Lifted Solar Telescope) is the only UK project to win the prestigious REXUS/BEXUS (Rocket and Balloon Experiments for University Students) competition, a European Space Agency programme. The balloon launch is scheduled for October 2017!

The success of the SunbYte team in the REXUS/BEXUS competition is an unprecedented opportunity for The University of Sheffield students to gain valuable experience working in the Space engineering industry, utilising their theoretical knowledge and networking with students and companies from all over Europe.

The purpose of the mission is to design and build the instrumentation which will be able to gather scientific quality data of the Sun’s dynamic and highly magnetized atmosphere. The Sun, our local star, is one of the most relevant astrophysical objects to study for humankind. It has a direct impact on Earth, life and society. It interacts with the Earth in many ways, for example through the solar wind and coronal mass ejections (CMEs), which are giant clouds of hot ionised gas (known as plasma, the fourth state of matter) expelled by the Sun into interplanetary space. Often CMEs impact on the Earth causing damage to orbiting satellites, even inducing vast power surges in national power grids which have left millions of homes without electricity. Knowledge of the Sun’s highly dynamic and magnetically dominated atmosphere is crucial for understanding the interaction of the Earth with the Sun and the local space environment, called Space Weather.

SunbYte Student TeamThe SunbYte multidisciplinary team is made up of Undergraduate, Postgraduate and PhD students from across a number of Engineering departments at The University of Sheffield, including; Aerospace, Civil and Structural, Electronic and Electrical, Mechanical, Materials Science and Automatic Control and Systems Engineering. The student lead is Yun Hang Cho, a PhD student, from the Department of Civil and Structural Engineering. Dr Viktor Fedun, the academic lead, is from Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering. The project has gained cross-faculty support from Dr Gary Verth from the School of Mathematics and Statistics and at a national level, from Northumbria University, Queen’s University Belfast and University of Hull.

Yun-Hang Cho, comments:

“What excites me about project Sunbyte is the potential for protecting our way of life. The knowledge gained will enable us to develop effective defences against solar flares and expand our knowledge of the universe.”

Current Earth-based solar telescopes are very expensive due to the significant investment required for mirrors and other hardware that is needed to obtain images of the Sun that are of a reasonable quality. The SunByte team will use novel manufacturing techniques, such as 3D printing, to produce a low cost alternative. A high altitude balloon will be used to lift the solar telescope above the interference of the Earth’s lower atmosphere to observe the Sun in the H-alpha spectral line.

Since the Earth’s atmosphere is dense and distorts much of the light which arrives at Earth, this reduces the quality of ground-based solar observations. Instead, a small and high-quality telescope at an altitude of 30-40km is far more valuable than a large and expensive telescope positioned on the ground. Light incident upon such a telescope at an altitude of 30-40km is less warped than light incident upon a telescope at ground level. This means that the images captured by the SunbYte team will be of important scientific value, especially due to the high time cadence. The resulting plasma waves, flows and eruptions measured in the Sun’s chromosphere will be much sought after by both the solar and stellar physics international communities. Additionally, the team plan to compare their data with that from ground-based solar telescopes to determine the advantages of their balloon-based telescope system.

The solar telescope design will be based upon a Raspberry Pi optical telescope called PiKon, developed by team member, Mark Wrigley. The new design concept goes a step further than PiKon as it will utilise larger mirrors, specialist optical filters and a higher resolution camera provided by Andor Technology Ltd. (Belfast, UK) to increase the quality of the data. Having such specialist expertise on board will help the team deliver a high performance payload that can revolutionise the industry.

The telescope will also be equipped with a sensor and a motorised system that will detect and control the altitude of the telescope. The employed tracking and stabilisation system will not only benefit the SunbYte project but will also benefit scientists and engineers working in a variety of research fields; this is due to the stabilisation system being useable on both land and sea.

“The SunbYte project will enable the testing of the proposed stabilisation and observation system for use in future missions. We hope to revolutionise solar telescope technology and create telescopes that will become important and economically sustainable instruments for high atmosphere-borne solar observations.”

Dr Viktor Fedun, ACSE academic

The SunbYte data will have scientific value since the images will contain information on large-scale solar chromospheric activity, flows and oscillations measured with a very high time cadence. This information is much sought after in both the solar and stellar physics international communities. High-cadence full-disk, or Sun-as-a-star H-alpha or H-beta observations will provide a connection between the integrated chromospheric intensity and the chromospheric activity, with potential applications to measurements of chromospheric activity of other stars. Furthermore, if a very high energy event takes place during the flight, e.g. a flare or coronal mass ejection, this will add even more scientific value to the obtained experimental data.

Yun-Hang Cho, concludes:

“Sunbyte places the involved University of Sheffield students at the forefront of Science and Engineering giving them the chance to learn through experience. Leading a student team is no easy task and there is always a need to ensure effective engagement across the team. I am very proud of the work everyone has delivered and hope to continue leading them to success.”