The National Science Foundation has released the first, close-up images of the sun’s surface from its Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope, which fittingly sits atop the summit of Haleakala – the house of the sun — on Maui.
They are the highest-resolution images of the sun’s surface ever taken, according to the NSF, and mark a new frontier for solar research.
What they reveal is a gold-colored, textured pattern depicting the turbulent “boiling” plasma that covers the entire sun, scientists said.
This plasma is made up of bubbling cells — each as large as Texas — which are the “signature of violent motions” that transport heat from inside the sun to its surface through convection.
Scientists say that the 4-meter solar telescope, built by NSF’s National Solar Observatory, will “enable a new era of solar science” in efforts to understand the sun and its impacts on Earth. It can capture images showing three times more detail than ever seen before, NSF officials said.
“Since NSF began work on this ground-based telescope, we have eagerly awaited the first images,” said France Cordova, NSF director, in a news release. “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.”
Activity on the sun, known as space weather, can affect Earth in many ways.
For example, scientists said, magnetic eruptions on the sun can impact air travel, disrupt satellite communications, and bring down power grids, as well as disable some technologies such as GPS.
The sun, Earth’s nearest star, is like “a gigantic nuclear reactor that burns about 5 million tons of hydrogen fuel every second,” they said in the news release.
The energy that radiates from the sun makes life possible on Earth. How the sun works, however, still remains a mystery.
“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, in the release. “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 ground-based Inouye Solar Telescope will work with NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, which is in orbit around the sun, as well as the soon-to-be-launched European Space Agency/NASA Solar Orbiter, to better understand and predict space weather.
Scientists said the motions of the sun’s plasma constantly twist and tangle solar magnetic fields, which in turn can potentially lead to solar storms that negatively affect our technology-dependent lifestyles.
On the day that Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida in 2017, for instance, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported a simultaneous space weather event brought down radio communications used by first responders, along with aviation and maritime channels, for eight hours.
Being able to better predict space weather events could help governments prepare ahead of time.
The telescope atop Haleakala, formerly known as the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope, was renamed in honor of the late Hawaii senator, Daniel K. Inouye, in December 2013.