sun surface close up

New closeups show the Sun in more detail than ever before

Image credit: National Science Foundation

New pictures of the Sun, which show its surface in unprecedented detail, have been taken by a telescope in Hawaii.

The four-metre Inouye Solar telescope, which was built by the National Science Foundation (NSF), is located on the summit of Haleakala, Maui, in Hawaii and is touted as providing a “leap forward” in understanding the Sun and its impacts on our planet.

Activity on the Sun, known as space weather, can affect systems on Earth. Magnetic eruptions on the Sun can impact air travel, disrupt satellite communications and bring down power grids, causing long-lasting blackouts and disabling technologies such as GPS.

The new images reveal a pattern of turbulent “boiling” plasma that covers the entire Sun. Cell-like structures – each about the size of Texas – are the signature of violent motions that transport heat from the inside of the Sun to its surface.

That hot solar plasma rises in the bright centres of “cells”, cools, then sinks below the surface in dark lanes in a process known as convection.

The telescope can reveal features as small as 18 miles across, the NSF said.

“On Earth, we can predict if it is going to rain pretty much anywhere in the world very accurately, and space weather just isn’t there yet,” said Matt Mountain, president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, which manages the Inouye Solar Telescope.

“Our predictions lag behind terrestrial weather by 50 years, if not more. What we need is to grasp the underlying physics behind space weather, and this starts at the Sun, which is what the Inouye Solar Telescope will study over the next decades.”

The motions of the Sun’s plasma constantly twist and tangle solar magnetic fields. Twisted magnetic fields can lead to solar storms that can negatively affect our technology-dependent modern lifestyles.

During 2017’s Hurricane Irma, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that a simultaneous space weather event brought down radio communications used by first responders, aviation and maritime channels for eight hours on the day the hurricane made landfall.

Resolving these tiny magnetic features is central to what makes the Inouye Solar Telescope unique. It can measure and characterise the Sun’s magnetic field in more detail than ever seen before and determine the causes of potentially harmful solar activity.

The dome enclosing the telescope is covered by thin cooling plates that stabilise its temperature and this is helped by shutters within the dome that provide shade and air circulation.

The telescope also uses state-of-the-art adaptive optics to compensate for blurring created by Earth’s atmosphere. The design of the optics ('off-axis' mirror placement) reduces bright, scattered light for better viewing and is complemented by a cutting-edge system to precisely focus the telescope and eliminate distortions created by the Earth’s atmosphere.

“Since NSF began work on this ground-based telescope, we have eagerly awaited the first images,” said France Córdova, NSF director.

“We can now share these images and videos, which are the most detailed of our Sun to date. NSF’s Inouye Solar Telescope will be able to map the magnetic fields within the Sun’s corona, where solar eruptions occur that can impact life on Earth. This telescope will improve our understanding of what drives space weather and ultimately help forecasters better predict solar storms.”

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