S[&]T (Science [&] Technology), ASTRON (Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy) and KNMI (Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute) have completed the design of DISTURB, a warning system for eruptions on the sun.

Published by the editorial team, 25 September 2020

Eruptions on the sun occur regularly and generally cause little trouble when they are small. However, larger sun eruptions can seriously interfere with radars, GPS receivers and radio connections. This has historically had serious repercussions for air traffic.

Both the Dutch Ministry of Defence and KNMI want to be able to warn military and civilian users of antenna systems for these larger, potentially blinding, outbursts. DISTURB (Disturbance detection by Intelligent Solar radio Telescope of (Un)perturbed Radiofrequency Bands) is a solar radio telescope that directly detects solar eruptions in great detail in real time and can therefore quickly alert others for current and past solar radio interference.

The first phase of the project, led by S[&]T, started on January 30th, 2019. “Over the past year and a half we have worked on the design of the solar radio telescope”, says Michiel Brentjens, radio astronomer and project scientist at ASTRON. “KNMI already has lots of sensors to keep an eye on space weather, but they don’t have sensors for this yet.”

“It has been really interesting to investigate how we can adapt the advanced antenna technology originally developed for astronomy to detect solar outbursts”, says Edo Loenen, project manager at S[&]T. “The project has also shown how collaboration between government, research institutes and private industry can lead to innovations that benefit society.”

For the Ministry of Defence, it is important to know the source of radio signal interference. Brentjens: “If their radio systems suffer from interference, the Ministry of Defence wants to know whether this interference is caused by the Sun or by something else.”

“All our branches rely on antenna systems”, says Major Willem-Pieter van der Laan of the Ministry of Defence. “Think of radars for Ballistic Missile Defense or Air Traffic Control, antennas for radio and satellite communications, or GPS-receivers for timing and navigation. Knowing these systems are disturbed by the sun and not by an adversary could be crucial.”

KNMI is responsible for space weather monitoring and alerts for The Netherlands and considers DISTURB information as an important future asset.

Render of DISTURB
An image rendering of DISTURB. (copyright: ASTRON)


The next phase will be the construction of an actual working prototype of the solar radio telescope. Both ASTRON and S[&]T will be working together in this phase, with ASTRON taking the lead, given its experience in building high performance radio telescopes.

Brentjens: “There clearly is a need for a live alerting system, which is exactly what DISTURB is. The development of a working prototype will demonstrate that we can build an extremely reliable, real-time warning system.” The solar radio telescope is an entirely passive system that only ‘listens’ to the sun. Unlike other antenna systems, such as telephone transmitters, TV transmitters, or radar antennas, the solar radio telescope does not transmit any radio waves; it will only receive them.

Currently there are no comparable instruments which can provide real-time interference data from the sun that are as sensitive as DISTURB; the data produced by the solar radio telescope about extreme eruptions will be made freely accessible.

Update: The Dutch astronomy magazine ZENIT has published an article about DISTURB, for which they interviewed Michiel Brentjens.



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