The spectacular images collected by a Hawaii telescope, with details never seen before on the solar surface
The Sun is by far the most massive sphere around us: its diameter of 1.39 million kilometers is 109 times that of the Earth, and it would take 330,000 planets as ours put together to reach its mass. On its own, our star makes up 99.86 percent of all the weight of the Solar System. In short, the Sun is a cumbersome presence, we owe it everything (without it we wouldn’t exist), yet we still don’t know a lot about it.
A new solar telescope installed in Hawaii (USA) should help us to understand more about our only star, and its first observations are extremely promising. It is called Daniel K Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST), in honor of Hawaiian Democratic Senator Daniel Ken Inouye with a long political history and died in 2012. It is located on Haleakalā, the central volcano on the island of Maui, at an altitude of about 3 thousand meters.
The image below shows structures on the surface of the Sun. The original (which we do not publish because it would be too bulky) has a level of detail of 30 kilometers, a definition never is seen before and very remarkable, considering the size of our star. Each “cell” has an average extension of 700 thousand square kilometers, about twice the area of Germany. The brightest part in the center of the “cells” is due to scorching ionized gases (plasma) that emerge from the inner parts of the Sun. When it reaches the surface, the plasma cools and falls downwards, at the dark lines. These movements (convective motions) are typical of stars in a state of evolution like ours.
The DKIST has a primary mirror with a diameter of 4 meters and is to date the largest solar telescope available on Earth. Thanks to its observations, researchers will be able to discover new things about the Sun’s behavior, improving forecasts of solar storms, the moments of high activity of the star that have repercussions on the Earth, and the rest of the solar system. Flashes and other solar activities determine the so-called “space weather,” i.e., the way environmental conditions change in space.
Although the Sun is, on average, 150 million kilometers away from us, the significant emissions of charged particles it produces can reach us quickly, sometimes causing damage to satellites orbiting the Earth. The consequences are usually information transmission problems and higher risks for astronauts in orbit. Fortunately, the Earth’s magnetic field and the atmosphere reduce the chances for those living on the planet. Still, there have been cases where significant emissions have led to problems on the ground, such as interruptions in some power distribution networks.
While the Earth’s weather allows for very accurate forecasts, the space weather still lacks considerable inaccuracies, due to the lack of suitable instruments to measure solar activity to create forecasting models. Thanks to probes, satellites, and new telescopes, things have improved in recent years, and, with better data provided by instruments such as DKIST, researchers are confident to refine systems to predict changes in solar activity.
Next week, a new solar observation satellite, Solar Orbiter (SolO), will be launched into orbit, a new moon for the observation of the Sun created thanks to a collaboration between the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA, which will allow more accurate measurements to be made. It will also be the first probe to provide quality images of the polar regions of our star, which are difficult to observe from Earth.