The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope – near the summit of Mount Haleakala on the Hawaiian island of Maui – released its first images of the sun this week. They’re said to be the highest-resolution images of the solar surface ever taken, and who can argue? We’ve never seen images of the sun that look like this. The imagery – released January 29, 2020 – shows cell-like structures roiling on the sun’s surface. We knew this structure existed. These cells are called granules, and they’re caused by convective currents of plasma on the sun. But these images are like nothing we’ve seen previously. Each one of these cells is the size of Texas!
Scientists say the Texas-sized granules are the result of heat carried from inside the sun outward to its surface. It’s as if we’re seeing the sun boil.
The clarity of the image is due to the telescope’s 4-meter (13-foot) mirror, which is the world’s largest for a solar telescope.
These are the highest resolution images of the solar surface ever taken.
The U.S. National Science Foundation built the Inouye Solar Telescope, which has more than twice the resolution – double the ability to see clearly – of the next-best solar observatories. Construction of the telescope began in January 2013, and the primary mirror was delivered to the site in August 2017. The completed telescope has now provided its first images of the sun. From an NSF statement about the telescopes first images:
The images show a pattern of turbulent ‘boiling’ plasma that covers the entire sun. The cell-like structures – each about the size of Texas – are the signature of violent motions that transport heat from the inside of the sun to its surface. That hot solar plasma rises in the bright centers of ‘cells,’ cools, then sinks below the surface in dark lanes in a process known as convection.
The motions of the sun’s plasma constantly twist and tangle the magnetic fields on the sun. Twisted magnetic fields can lead to solar storms that can affect systems on Earth. Magnetic eruptions on the sun can affect air travel, disrupt satellite communications, bring down power grids and disable technologies such as GPS.
It’s all about the magnetic field. To unravel the sun’s biggest mysteries, we have to not only be able to clearly see these tiny structures from 93 million miles [150 million km] away but very precisely measure their magnetic field strength and direction near the surface and trace the field as it extends out into the million-degree corona, the outer atmosphere of the sun.
Finally resolving these tiny magnetic features is central to what makes the Inouye Solar Telescope unique, says NFS. The telescope can measure and characterize the sun’s magnetic field in more detail than ever seen before and determine the causes of potentially harmful solar activity.
Bottom line: The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope has produced the highest resolution images of the sun’s surface ever taken.
Eleanor Imster has helped write and edit EarthSky since 1995. She was an integral part of the award-winning EarthSky radio series almost since it began until it ended in 2013. Today, as Lead Editor at EarthSky.org, she helps present the science and nature stories and photos you enjoy. She also serves as one of the voices of EarthSky on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and G+. She and her husband live in Tennessee and have two grown sons.