A new solar telescope in Hawaii has taken its first photo and video of the Sun. The images are the highest-resolution views of our star ever taken, revealing details on the Sun’s surface as small as 18 miles across.
The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope is located on Maui’s Haleakala volcano. The largest solar telescope on Earth, with a primary mirror that is 4 meters (about 13 feet) wide, will be able to resolve smaller details on the Sun than ever before. Scientists hope to better understand the remaining mysteries about our nearest star thanks to the telescope’s sophisticated instruments and high resolution.
A bubbling star
Plasma cells on the Sun’s surface are visible as a grainy pattern in the telescope’s “first light” image. In a process known as convection, hot plasma from within the Sun rises to the surface, cools, and sinks back down, similar to bubbling water in a boiling pot.
The brighter areas in the photo are where new plasma has just risen up from below, while the darker areas are where cooler plasma sinks back down. In this first image from the telescope, the grains are about the size of Texas.
Some of the greatest remaining mysteries about our star are linked to the bubbling motions of hot plasma in the Sun. Because plasma is electrically charged, its motions can create magnetic fields. Many of the Sun’s most dynamic behaviors, such as solar storms that can disrupt satellites and power grids on Earth, are caused by its magnetic fields.
According to Rebecca Centano Elliott, a solar scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, “most solar storms originate in places on the Sun where there is strong magnetism, strong concentrations of magnetic forces.”
Researchers may be able to better predict when potentially dangerous solar storms will occur when they can better understand and monitor magnetic fields on the Sun.
Many of the telescope’s instruments are well suited to studying magnetic fields because they can measure light properties other than brightness and color that contain information about magnetic forces in the Sun’s atmosphere.
Furthermore, the telescope’s ability to capture more minute details on the Sun’s surface than ever before will help scientists in testing theories about the Sun’s workings that had previously eluded observation.
“This is a huge leap for our field, I think, in terms of observations,” says Centano Elliott.