Earth’s largest and most powerful solar telescope has given us breathtaking new views of the sun’s surface.
In a series of new images, observations by the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope reveal the intricate details of sunspot regions, convective cells, and plasma motion in the solar atmosphere down to a resolution of about 20 kilometers (about 12 miles).
At these scales, the plasma structures look like brush strokes and textures on a painting. For distances in context, a single solar load cell is slightly smaller, on average, than the US state of Texas.
However, these new images of Inouye aren’t just designed to make you feel insignificant and insignificant, they’re a sneak preview of science to come, as researchers analyze the solar surface in exquisite detail to understand the processes taking place there.
Often larger than our entire planet, sunspots are usually short-lived defects where magnetic fields are unusually strong, and appear darker than their surroundings thanks to their relatively low temperatures. They’re also associated with our sun’s most violent outbursts: as magnetic field lines intertwine, snap and reconnect, they unleash incredible blasts of energy in the form of coronal mass ejections and eruptions.
Sunspot activity is not constant. It is associated with cycles of about 11 year duration, during which sunspot and flare activity rises to a peak at solar maximum, and decreases to almost none during solar minimum. At solar maximum, the sun’s poles switch places; We are currently on the path towards the solar maximum It is expected to take place in 2025after which solar activity will begin to decline again.
It is not known what drives these solar cycles, or What creates sunspots?. But this information is very relevant to us here on Earth, since coronal mass ejections often associated with sunspots can send huge clouds of charged particles crashing into Earth’s magnetic field and risking The number of outages to our technology-driven lifestyle.
The new Inouye images show many of the delicate structures associated with sunspots.
For example, there is darkness (those are the dark spots in the middle). Bright spots seen within the shadows are known as canopy points. The penumbra is the brighter area around the shadow. This is characterized by shiny filaments known as penumbral filaments.
Occasionally, a sunspot-like region of a focused magnetic field can be seen with a canopy but no circumferential shadow. These are known as solar pores; They are formed when the conditions for the formation of shadows are not met.
And when sunspots begin to dissolve and disappear, bridges of light can cross them. Further decay sees sunspots lose their shadow. It is very rare for a loss process to be recorded.
When the sun is calm, it can look completely featureless in images taken in the visible part of the spectrum.
However, even the quiet sun has a lot going on. Thermal cells, shown below, give the sun’s surface, or photosphere, its “popcorn” texture. The hot plasma rises from inside the center of the cell, then travels outward to the periphery, and drops back down as it cools. Convection cells, or granules, are staggeringly huge, up to 1,600 kilometers (994 miles) across.
Above the photosphere is the solar atmosphere, or chromosphere. They are sometimes inhabited by thin, dark, brushstroke-like filaments of plasma known as fibrils or spicules. They look like hair, but the diameters of the fibers are usually in the range 200 and 450 kilometers (125 to 280 miles). It explodes from the photosphere and lasts for a few minutes. Scientists don’t know how fibers are generated, but there are certainly a lot of them, and they are Very reliable indicators directions The solar magnetic field is chaotic.
Scientists hope the data from Inouye will help unravel some of the lingering mysteries of these remarkable solar phenomena. In turn, this can help understand larger phenomena; The internal dynamics of the Sun, for example, and what drives solar cycles.
The telescope is already getting results. Earlier this year, scientists described the first-ever observations of Solar atmospheric waves in a sunspot.
“There is no other facility like the Inouye Solar Telescope,” astronomer Thomas Rimmele, director of the Inouye Solar Telescope, said. He said last year. “It is now a cornerstone of our mission to advance our knowledge of the Sun by providing groundbreaking observational opportunities for the research community. It is a game-changer.”
You can view and download full-resolution versions of the new images On the National Science Foundation website.
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