Emerging Tech

This is the most detailed photo ever taken of the surface of the sun

Our sun is something of a mystery. There is much we still don’t know about our star — for example, while we know that the surface of the sun has a temperature of around 6,000 degrees Celsius, the corona surrounding it has a temperature of millions of degrees Celsius, and we don’t know how it gets so heated.

Another phenomenon we are just starting to understand is that the boiling plasma that creates elaborate patterns on the sun’s surface has effects far beyond the star itself. The sun’s influence reaches out across the solar system in the form of space weather, which can have serious effects on both electronic equipment and astronauts in space. It can disrupt satellite communications, affect air travel, and even cause problems with power grids leading to blackouts.

To learn more about the enormous nuclear reactor that is our sun, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has debuted the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope based in Maui, Hawaii. With a 13-foot (4-meter) mirror, this is now the world’s largest solar telescope.

The National Science Foundation’s Inouye Solar Telescope sits atop Maui’s Haleakala as the Sun sits low on the horizon.
The National Science Foundation’s Inouye Solar Telescope sits atop Maui’s Haleakala as the sun sits low on the horizon. NSO/NSF/AURA

After 10 years of planning and seven years of construction, the telescope’s first light image has been released. The image shows a close-up view of the surface of the sun, with a pattern of boiling plasma rolling across it. Each of the cell-like structures is the size of Texas, with hot plasma rising to the middle of each cell and carrying heat from the interior of the star to the exterior.

The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope has produced the highest resolution image of the sun's surface ever taken
The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope has produced the highest resolution image of the sun’s surface ever taken. NSO/AURA/NSF

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

With its inaugural image complete, the telescope will now be put to immediate scientific use. “It’s an exciting time to be a solar physicist,” Valentin Pillet, director of NSF’s National Solar Observatory, said in the statement. “The Inouye Solar Telescope will provide remote sensing of the outer layers of the sun and the magnetic processes that occur in them.” It will be used in conjunction with other solar observation tools such as the Parker Solar Probe and the soon-to-be-launched Solar Orbiter.

Researchers are looking bright about the future of solar science. The new telescope will enable the collection of unprecedented amounts of data about our star, according to David Boboltz, program director in NSF’s division of astronomical sciences: “The Inouye Solar Telescope will collect more information about our sun during the first five years of its lifetime than all the solar data gathered since Galileo first pointed a telescope at the sun in 1612.”

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