Never‑Seen‑Before Images of the Sun’s Surface Capture Plasma Cells the Size of France


Jan 30, 2020


Image Credits: National Science Foundation

A new telescope has managed to capture the most detailed, high-resolution images of the sun ever seen. The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope, which belongs to the U.S. National Science Foundation, collaborates with NASA’s Parker Solar Probe (which orbits the sun) in order to capture these images.

The new, detailed images show 36,500 kilometers of the Sun’s surface, which is below the corona, or the star’s atmosphere, consisting of plasma cells. Each plasma cell is the size of Texas, U.S.A — a state which is slightly larger than France. The surface shows remarkable structure and plasma cells rising up from the core to rejoin the corona. When heat from the Sun’s core bubbles up to the surface, these plasma cells essentially play tag team with the heat, rising up to the corona from within the star’s core, transferring it to other cells, cooling down and sinking below the Sun’s surface in a process called convection. As convection takes place in the corona, the Sun’s surface is also cooler than the corona — the surface is 6,000 Kelvin (5,726-degree Celsius), while the corona is one million degrees Kelvin. (999727-degree Celsius).

“We have now seen the smallest details on the largest object in the solar system,” Inouye telescope director Thomas Rimmele told ScienceNews. Valentin Pillet, director of the NSF’s National Solar Observatory, added, “It really is a great time to be a solar astronomer.”

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The telescope, still under construction, used to observe the sun has a 30 k.m. resolution. This is two-fold better than the second-best solar telescope available. This telescope is located in Hawaii and features a four-meter mirror, which is the world’s largest with respect to solar telescopes. Maintaining the mirror’s temperature as it dared look directly at the sun required a swimming pool’s worth of ice and coolant, distributed between eight tanks and 12 k.m. of piping within the observatory, and 100 air jets positioned behind the mirror.

“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. This telescope will improve our understanding of what drives space weather and ultimately help forecasters better predict solar storms,” France Córdova, National Science Foundation director, told CNN.

Solar eruptions, better known as solar flares, are sudden flashes of increased brightness on the Sun, accompanied by a coronal mass ejection, which is the ejection of plasma cells and the accompanying magnetic field into space. If this ejection happens in the direction of Earth, and if the plasma and magnetic field penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere, they can affect the planet’s ionosphere and radio communications.

Till then, we grapple with more pressing questions — what does the Sun’s surface remind us of? A poet would say nuggets of gold, but as always, people on Twitter have better theories.


Written By Aditi Murti

Aditi Murti is a culture writer at The Swaddle. Previously, she worked as a freelance journalist focused on gender and cities. Find her on social media @aditimurti.


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