Burn Baby Burn

Breakthrough images provide closest look yet at the Sun's truly chaotic surface

Our host star is wild.

To get a sense of just how chaotic the Sun truly is, scientists have released the most detailed images of the Sun ever taken. Our host star is wild.

To the naked eye, the Sun appears like a beneficent ball of light, fueling our very existence. But a closer look at our star reveals the truth: Violent flare ups of solar particles, eruptions of hot gas that shoot out into outer space, a roiling, boiling surface.

The new images, taken with the National Science Foundation's Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope, not only reveal our host star in unprecedented detail, but they can also help scientists peer into the mechanics behind the star's unpredictable space weather.

These are the very first images that the telescope captured of the Sun’s surface — signaling the era of new Sun science the telescope could help kickstart.

The images reveal patterns of hot gas in the form of plasma moving violently across the Sun’s surface. The patterns are made up of tiny eruptions, forming a hypnotic dance of burning plasma which you can see in the video below.

NSO/NSF/AURA

Close-up images of the Sun show its seething surface in great detail.

Up-close and solar

The telescope produced the highest-resolution images of the Sun's surface, revealing the detail of cell-like structures of hot gas that cover the entire surface.

NSO/NSF/AURA

Each of these structures are about the size of Texas, and the dark borders around them are the markers of the Sun's magnetic field. Hot plasma erupts from the center, cools off as it spills over to the sides before sinking below the surface in a continuous process that transports energy, also known as convection.

NSO/NSF/AURA

These cell-like structures are one of the driving forces behind space weather. The Sun’s magnetic field gets twisted and tangled with the movement of the solar plasma, which leads to storms erupting from the surface of the Sun.

Scientists need to understand the mechanism behind the Sun’s magnetic field in order to better predict space-weather events — these storms can effect satellite communications, power grids, and even cause blackouts. They are also hazardous to astronauts during deep space missions.

The space weather we encounter here on Earth is mostly to do with the Sun. As the star burns through some 5 million tons of hydrogen fuel every second, it emits radiation into outer space. The Sun releases streams of plasma in the form of solar wind, which can cause major magnetic storms in the Earth's upper atmosphere.

“NSF's Inouye Solar Telescope will be able to map the magnetic fields within the Sun's corona, where solar eruptions occur that can impact life on Earth,” France Córdova, NSF director, said in a statement. “This telescope will improve our understanding of what drives space weather and ultimately help forecasters better predict solar storms."

Inouye Solar Telescope: New era of space science

The Inouye Solar Telescope is the largest solar telescope in the world. Located in the island of Maui, Hawaii, it has a mirror that stretches 13 feet across, allowing it to collect seven times more sunlight than any other solar telescope.

Construction of the telescope began in 2010. Its primary objective is to observe the magnetic field of the Sun in order to understand the source of solar flares and predict when they might result in stormy space weather.

The telescope works in tandem with two space-based solar observatories, NASA's Parker Solar Probe, which launched in August, 2018 and is currently orbiting around the Sun, and the European Space Agency and NASA’s Solar Orbiter, which is scheduled to launch on February 5, 2020.

The NASA Parker Solar Probe just completed its closest fly-by of the Sun yet.NASA

"The Inouye Solar Telescope will provide remote sensing of the outer layers of the sun and the magnetic processes that occur in them,” Valentin Pillet, director of NSF's National Solar Observatory, said in a statement. “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."

According to the team behind the Inouye Solar Telescope, it will collect so much data during the first five years of operation that will exceed all the information we have learned about the Sun so far.

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