Watch the sun boiling in the most detailed photos and video to date
The first images and videos are in from the National Science Foundation's Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope, and they show the bubbling, explosive surface of our sun in unprecedented detail. The sheer scale, beauty and violence is breathtaking.
The telescope, positioned on the summit of Mt. Haleakala in Hawaii, has been a 10-year planning and construction project. It uses a huge 13-foot (4-m) mirror, the biggest ever used on a solar telescope, and its curved shape and other optical elements focus a huge 13 kilowatts of solar power, creating enormous heat. Cooling is provided by a "liquid-cooled metal donut," and it features adaptive optics designed to compensate for the blurring introduced by the Earth's atmosphere at high resolutions.
As a result, it's the most advanced solar telescope ever built, and capable of rendering clear images of solar features as small as 20-30 km (12-18 mi) in size. Now, the first images are out, and they show the turbulent plasma of the sun's surface in magnificent detail.
Each of the cell-like structures in the images and video shown here is around the size of Texas, or about 700 miles (~1,100 km) across. The video at the bottom of the page shows how they rise and fall in the space of just 10 minutes. For a sense of scale, that video covers a width of the solar surface equal to about one and a half times the diameter of the Earth, or about 1/73rd of the diameter of the sun itself.
These first images are just the beginning
The convection currents you're watching show the hottest plasma, the lightest parts of the image, rising up in the center of each "cell," then cooling and sinking back into the boiling mass in the darker areas. In some of these darker areas, we can also see the super-bright markers of magnetic fields, which are believed to channel energy up into the sun's outer atmosphere, or corona, heating it to more than a million degrees (in whatever scale you prefer) and radiating the mind-boggling levels of heat that provide the energy and warmth for all life on Earth, as well as scattering off in all other directions.
It's the best view we've ever had of the monstrous hydrogen-scoffing nuclear reactor at the center of our solar system, but this telescope isn't just there to produce pretty pictures that make half the New Atlas office feel like eating rice krispie snacks. Its main function is to enable scientists to better understand the twisting, undulating magnetic fields on the solar surface, which can have enormous and potentially dangerous effects on modern radio communications, power grids and other technologies. The goal is to give us earlier warnings of extreme solar activity; currently, we get about 48 minutes' notice, but it's believed the Inouye telescope will be able to warn us as much as 48 hours before the effects hit Earth.
“It’s an exciting time to be a solar physicist,” says Valentin Pillet, director of NSF’s National Solar Observatory. “The Inouye Solar Telescope will provide remote sensing of the outer layers of the Sun and the magnetic processes that occur in them. These processes propagate into the solar system where the Parker Solar Probe and Solar Orbiter missions will measure their consequences. Altogether, they constitute a genuinely multi-messenger undertaking to understand how stars and their planets are magnetically connected.”
“These first images are just the beginning,” says David Boboltz, program director in NSF’s division of astronomical sciences and who oversees the facility’s construction and operations. “Over the next six months, the Inouye telescope’s team of scientists, engineers and technicians will continue testing and commissioning the telescope to make it ready for use by the international solar scientific community. The Inouye Solar Telescope will collect more information about our Sun during the first 5 years of its lifetime than all the solar data gathered since Galileo first pointed a telescope at the Sun in 1612.”
Amazing stuff. Enjoy the video below in 4K, if you've got a screen big enough!