Hot plasma churns on the sun in the newest and most detailed images ever taken of our star. These pictures come from the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope on the Hawaiian island of Maui. It is named after a former senator from Hawaii who passed away in 2012. This instrument is still under construction. But that hasn’t stopped researchers from testing out this, the world’s largest solar telescope. And those tests showed it indeed works.
“We have now seen the smallest details on the largest object in the solar system,” said Thomas Rimmele. He is the director of the Inouye telescope. He described the new images January 24 during a teleconference. The first of those images were released January 29.
They reveal features on the sun’s surface just 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) across. That’s about just a third the size of anything that had been seen on the sun before.
The images cover an area 36,500 kilometers across. That’s roughly three times the diameter of Earth. They show familiar bubbles of plasma. Those bubbles are percolating up from deep below the surface. Dark lanes show up between the bubbles. They show newly resolved clusters of bright points. Those spots appear at the roots of magnetic fields that stretch out into space.
In fact, the telescope is being built to study magnetic structures on the sun. The goal is to learn more about the sun’s corona. That’s the sun’s outer atmosphere. It is millions of degrees hotter than the sun’s surface. A detailed look might lead to new insights into why that corona is so hot. It also could reveal what drives massive eruptions in the sun’s plasma. These eruptions can be so strong that they sometimes interfere with technology on Earth.
The new images are just a sneak peek at what’s to come. The new telescope is slated to officially start operating in July. Engineers are finishing the last tweaks to get it set up. This solar observatory is being built on a volcano that is called Haleakala. In Hawaiian, that name means “house of the sun.” And, when the telescope is complete, it promises to reveal features on the sun as small as 20 kilometers (12.4 miles).
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At that point, astronomers will have three new sun-gazing instruments. This telescope will join NASA’s Parker Solar Probe. It is circling closer and closer to the sun. It is due to make its closest approach in 2024. The European Space Agency also has a new Solar Orbiter. It launched on February 9, 2019. If all goes as planned, it will journey to observe the sun’s poles.
Each instrument has a special role. Solar Orbiter will watch the sun from a unique vantage point — its north and south poles. Parker is snuggling up close. It will directly sample the plasma and the sun’s fields. And though it’s on Earth, Inouye should give astronomers unmatched details on the sun. That’s due to the telescope’s big 4 meter (13.1 foot) mirror. By being on the ground, it has another advantage, too. Researchers can easily adapt it to new questions that will inevitably arise.
Astronomers who study the sun are excited. Among them is Valentin Pillet. He directs the National Science Foundation’s National Solar Observatory. “It really is a great time to be a solar astronomer,” he says.
astronomer: A scientist who works in the field of research that deals with celestial objects, space and the physical universe.
atmosphere: The envelope of gases surrounding Earth or another celestial body.
corona: The envelope of the sun (and other stars). The sun’s corona is normally visible only during a total solar eclipse, when it is seen as an irregularly shaped, pearly glow surrounding the darkened disk of the moon.
diameter: The length of a straight line that runs through the center of a circle or spherical object, starting at the edge on one side and ending at the edge on the far side.
engineer: A person who uses science to solve problems. As a verb, to engineer means to design a device, material or process that will solve some problem or unmet need.
eruption: (in geoscience) The sudden bursting or spraying of hot material out through the surface of some planet, moon or star. Volcanic eruptions on Earth usually send hot lava, hot gases or ash into the air and across surrounding land. In colder parts of the solar system, eruptions often involve liquid water spraying out through cracks in an icy crust. This happens on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn that is covered in ice.
field: (in physics) A region in space where certain physical effects operate, such as magnetism (created by a magnetic field), gravity (by a gravitational field), mass (by a Higgs field) or electricity (by an electrical field).
Hawaii: This central Pacific island chain became the 50th U.S. state on Aug. 21, 1959. Moving from west to east, its eight major islands are Niihau, Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, Lanai, Kahoolawe, Maui, and Hawaii (also known as the Big Island). The entire crescent-shaped island chain spans some 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles). Each of the state’s islands was created from one or more volcanoes that long ago sprang up from the ocean floor. The chain sits some 3,857 kilometers (2,397 miles) west of San Francisco, Calif., and 8,516 kilometers east of Manila, the Philippines.
insight: The ability to gain an accurate and deep understanding of a situation just by thinking about it, instead of working out a solution through experimentation.
magnetic field: An area of influence created by certain materials, called magnets, or by the movement of electric charges.
NASA: Short for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Created in 1958, this U.S. agency has become a leader in space research and in stimulating public interest in space exploration. It was through NASA that the United States sent people into orbit and ultimately to the moon. It also has sent research craft to study planets and other celestial objects in our solar system.
National Science Foundation: The U.S. Congress created this independent federal agency in 1950 to promote the advancement of science; national health, prosperity and welfare; and the nation’s defense. This agency funds nearly one-fourth of all federally supported basic research in U.S. colleges and universities. In many fields such as mathematics, computer science and the social sciences, NSF is the major source of federal funding.
observatory: (in astronomy) The building or structure (such as a satellite) that houses one or more telescopes.
orbiter: A spacecraft designed to go into orbit, especially one not intended to land.
plasma: (in chemistry and physics) A gaseous state of matter in which electrons separate from the atom. A plasma includes both positively and negatively charged particles.
poles: (in Earth science and astronomy) The cold regions of the planet that exist farthest from the equator; the upper and lower ends of the virtual axis around which a celestial object rotates.
solar system: The eight major planets and their moons in orbit around our sun, together with smaller bodies in the form of dwarf planets, asteroids, meteoroids and comets.
star: The basic building block from which galaxies are made. Stars develop when gravity compacts clouds of gas. When they become hot enough, stars will emit light and sometimes other forms of electromagnetic radiation. The sun is our closest star.
sun: The star at the center of Earth’s solar system. It is about 27,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Also a term for any sunlike star.
technology: The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.
telescope: Usually a light-collecting instrument that makes distant objects appear nearer through the use of lenses or a combination of curved mirrors and lenses. Some, however, collect radio emissions (energy from a different portion of the electromagnetic spectrum) through a network of antennas.
unique: Something that is unlike anything else; the only one of its kind.
volcano: A place on Earth’s crust that opens, allowing magma and gases to spew out from underground reservoirs of molten material.
Announcement: National Solar Observatory. Inouye Solar Telescope: first light. January 29, 2020.