This time, it’s OK to stare into the sun.
The violent surface of the star that gives us life on Earth has finally been revealed in stunning detail by the new Inouye Solar Telescope in Hawaii. These images show the sun’s “boiling” plasma landscape from 93 million miles away.
“These are the highest resolution images of the solar surface ever taken,” says Thomas Rimmele, director of the Inouye Solar Telescope project, in a news conference Friday. “What we previously thought looked like a bright point — one structure — is now breaking down into many smaller structures.”
These columnlike structures, called “cells,” are made of churning solar plasma heated to over 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which rises up from below to create a brief bright center before cooling off and sinking back down into the cracks. Each of these cells is approximately the size of Texas.
“The Inouye Solar Telescope will collect more information about our sun during the first five years of its lifetime than all the solar data gathered since Galileo first pointed a telescope at the sun in 1612,” says David Boboltz, a program director for the National Science Foundation Astronomy Division who oversees the observatory’s construction and operations.
The prized feature of the National Solar Observatory’s “pre-eminent” $344 million telescope is a 13-foot mirror, the world’s largest for a solar telescope. The 13-story facility, which broke ground in 2012, sits near the 10,000-foot summit of Haleakala, Maui.
Proper heat management is critical for a machine built to take in 13 kilowatts of solar power, scientists say. They created a specialized cooling system that involves more than seven miles of piping to distribute coolant ice day and night.
Researchers’ primary objective during the telescope’s 44-year life span is to learn more about the drivers of space weather, including solar winds, storms and flares, which are known to impact climate and infrastructure on Earth, causing blackouts and damaging satellites. To accomplish this, data from Inouye focusing on the sun’s magnetic field will be combined with physical observations by NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, launched in 2018, as well as the Solar Orbiter, a joint mission by NASA and the European Space Agency which takes off in February, according to Space.com.
“Our expanding dependence on technology greatly increases our vulnerability to space weather,” says Boboltz.