A telescope designed to help us look at the sun has produced unprecedented images of the surface of the star that could pave the way for a future where disruptive solar flares are predicted a few days before their impact.
Astronomers have just published the first observations from the National Science Foundation’s Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope. The team revealed incredible new images and videos of the solar disk with unprecedented detail, presenting structures as small as 30 kilometers (18 miles).
“It is literally the greatest leap in humanity’s ability to study the Sun from the ground since Galileo’s time,” said astronomer Jeff Kuhn of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Institute for Astronomy.
“It’s a big deal.”
The striking images reveal a surprising level of structure hidden outside the churning plasma, bringing a previously hazy impression of the sun’s patchwork surface sharply into focus for the first time.
These loose spots that you see are called granules. These are the tops of the convection cells in the solar plasma, with hot plasma rising in the middle, then falling down at the edges when it moves outward and cools.
Each granule is almost beyond comprehensively large – up to 1,600 kilometers (994 miles) in diameter. The US state of Texas is approximately 1,270 kilometers (790 miles) in length.
Future observations of the solar telescope will reveal more about how the outer layers of the Sun change over time and the underlying magnetic processes that occur deep within them.
This will help researchers in their quest to better understand our star and how it affects us. Forecasting solar storms is still beyond our capabilities, but data from the telescope will help in this effort.
“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 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.”