Shining a New Light
Johnny Chern, Screen Editor, looks at the bright new images of the Sun.
Images emerged last month which showed the Sun in more detail than ever seen before. The images were captured by the new Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope in Hawaii, which is now, at 4 metres long, the world’s largest telescope.
From 93 million miles away, the pictures show patterns of moving plasma on the Sun’s surface. This is a process called convection, where according to the National Science Foundation (NSF), “hot solar plasma rises in the bright centers of “cells,” cools, then sinks below the surface in dark lanes.” These cell-like plasma blobs are each roughly 800 miles across, truly putting into perspective how tiny our planet is compared to our star.
“It’s going to be such a revolution for understanding the Sun”
The US $344 million observatory has been two decades in the making, and is able to study very small features of the Sun. Soon, the telescope is expected to make the first-ever magnetic measurements in the Sun’s atmosphere. This will help scientists study solar storms and predict space weather – an important topic since solar wind blows from the Sun to the edges of the solar system, meaning technically we live inside the ‘atmosphere’ of the sun. Solar storms can also negatively affect technology on Earth including everyday aspects of modern life like radio communications.
This research should help explain how the sun’s magnetic fields can trigger eruptions of superheated gas that can hit the Earth. According to NSF, these “magnetic eruptions on the Sun can impact air travel, disrupt satellite communications and bring down power grids, causing long-lasting blackouts and disabling technologies such as GPS.”
“It’s going to be such a revolution for understanding the Sun,” says Momchil Molnar, a solar physicist at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Eventually, the data collected from the new Inouye Telescope will be used alongside corresponding research by NASA and the European Space Agency, an exciting prospect for future expansions in the knowledge of our solar system, how it came to be and predicting its fate in the future.