NSF’s Newest Solar Telescope Produces First Images

Activity on the Sun, known as space weather, can affect systems on Earth. 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. (Image: via   pixabay  /  CC0 1.0)
Activity on the Sun, known as space weather, can affect systems on Earth. 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. (Image: via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Just released first images from the National Science Foundation’s Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope reveal unprecedented detail of the Sun’s surface and preview the world-class products to come from this preeminent 4-meter solar telescope. NSF’s Inouye Solar Telescope, on the summit of Haleakala, Maui, in Hawai‘i, will enable a new era of solar science and a leap forward in understanding the Sun and its impacts on our planet.

Activity on the Sun, known as space weather, can affect systems on Earth. 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.

The first images from NSF’s Inouye Solar Telescope show a close-up view of the Sun’s surface, which can provide important detail for scientists. The images show a pattern of turbulent “boiling” plasma that covers the entire Sun. The cell-like structures — each about the size of Texas — are the signature of violent motions that transport heat from the inside of the Sun to its surface. That hot solar plasma rises in the bright centers of “cells,” cools, then sinks below the surface in dark lanes in a process known as convection.

The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope has produced the highest resolution image of the sun's surface ever taken. In this picture, taken at 789 nanometers (nm), we can see features as small as 30km (18 miles) in size for the first time ever. The image shows a pattern of turbulent, “boiling” gas that covers the entire sun. The cell-like structures -- each about the size of Texas -- are the signature of violent motions that transport heat from the inside of the sun to its surface. Hot solar material (plasma) rises in the bright centers of “cells,” cools off and then sinks below the surface in dark lanes in a process known as convection. In these dark lanes we can also see the tiny, bright markers of magnetic fields. Never before seen to this clarity, these bright specks are thought to channel energy up into the outer layers of the solar atmosphere called the corona. These bright spots may be at the core of why the solar corona is more than a million degrees. (Image: NSO/AURA/NSF)

The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope has produced the highest resolution image of the Sun’s surface ever taken. In this picture, taken at 789 nanometers (nm), we can see features as small as 30km (18 miles) in size for the first time ever. The image shows a pattern of turbulent, ‘boiling’ gas that covers the entire Sun. The cell-like structures — each about the size of Texas — are the signature of violent motions that transport heat from the inside of the Sun to its surface. Hot solar material (plasma) rises in the bright centers of ‘cells,’ cools off, and then sinks below the surface in dark lanes in a process known as convection. In these dark lanes, we can also see the tiny, bright markers of magnetic fields. Never before seen to this clarity, these bright specks are thought to channel energy up into the outer layers of the solar atmosphere called the corona. These bright spots may be at the core of why the solar corona is more than a million degrees. (Image: NSO / AURA / NSF)

France Córdova, NSF director, said:

Expanding knowledge

The Sun is our nearest star — a gigantic nuclear reactor that burns about 5 million tons of hydrogen fuel every second. It has been doing so for about 5 billion years and will continue for the other 4.5 billion years of its lifetime. All that energy radiates into space in every direction, and the tiny fraction that hits Earth makes life possible. In the 1950s, scientists figured out that a solar wind blows from the Sun to the edges of the solar system.

The NSF's Inouye Solar Telescope images the sun in more detail than we’ve ever seen before. The telescope can image a region of the sun 38,000km wide. Close up, these images show large cell-like structures hundreds of kilometers across and, for the first time, the smallest features ever seen on the solar surface, some as small as 30km. Background image: NSO Integrated Synoptic Program/GONG. (Image: NSO/AURA/NSF)

The NSF’s Inouye Solar Telescope images the Sun in more detail than we’ve ever seen before. The telescope can image a region of the Sun 38,000 km wide. Close up, these images show large cell-like structures hundreds of kilometers across and, for the first time, the smallest features ever seen on the solar surface, some as small as 30km. Background image: NSO Integrated Synoptic Program/GONG. (Image: NSO / AURA / NSF)

They also concluded for the first time that we live inside the atmosphere of this star. But many of the Sun’s most vital processes continue to confound scientists. Matt Mountain, president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, which manages the Inouye Solar Telescope, said:

The motions of the Sun’s plasma constantly twist and tangle solar magnetic fields. Twisted magnetic fields can lead to solar storms that can negatively affect our technology-dependent modern lifestyles. During 2017’s Hurricane Irma, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that a simultaneous space weather event brought down radio communications used by first responders, aviation, and maritime channels for eight hours on the day the hurricane made landfall.

Infographic: World-class instruments combine for a new era of solar astronomy. (Image: NSF)

Infographic: World-class instruments combine for a new era of solar astronomy. (Image: NSF)

Finally resolving these tiny magnetic features is central to what makes the Inouye Solar Telescope unique. It can measure and characterize the Sun’s magnetic field in more detail than ever seen before and determine the causes of potentially harmful solar activity. Thomas Rimmele, director of the Inouye Solar Telescope, said:

Better understanding the origins of potential disasters will enable governments and utilities to better prepare for inevitable future space weather events. It is expected that notification of potential impacts could occur earlier — as much as 48 hours ahead of time instead of the current standard, which is about 48 minutes. This would allow more time to secure power grids and critical infrastructure and to put satellites into safe mode.

The engineering

To achieve the proposed science, this telescope required important new approaches to its construction and engineering. Built by NSF’s National Solar Observatory and managed by AURA, the Inouye Solar Telescope combines a 13-foot (4-meter) mirror — the world’s largest for a solar telescope — with unparalleled viewing conditions at the 10,000-foot Haleakala summit.

Focusing 13 kilowatts of solar power generates enormous amounts of heat — heat that must be contained or removed. A specialized cooling system provides crucial heat protection for the telescope and its optics. More than seven miles of piping distribute coolant throughout the observatory, partially chilled by ice created on-site during the night.

Major milestones in NSF-funded solar astronomy. (Image: NSF)

Major milestones in NSF-funded solar astronomy. (Image: NSF)

The dome enclosing the telescope is covered by thin cooling plates that stabilize the temperature around the telescope, helped by shutters within the dome that provide shade and air circulation. The “heat-stop” (a high-tech, liquid-cooled, doughnut-shaped metal) blocks most of the sunlight’s energy from the main mirror, allowing scientists to study specific regions of the Sun with unparalleled clarity.

The telescope also uses state-of-the-art adaptive optics to compensate for blurring created by Earth’s atmosphere. The design of the optics (“off-axis” mirror placement) reduces bright, scattered light for better viewing and is complemented by a cutting-edge system to precisely focus the telescope and eliminate distortions created by the Earth’s atmosphere. This system is the most advanced solar application to date. Rimmele said:

New Era of Solar Astronomy

NSF’s new ground-based Inouye Solar Telescope will work with space-based solar observation tools such as NASA’s Parker Solar Probe (currently in orbit around the Sun) and the European Space Agency/NASA Solar Orbiter (soon to be launched). The three solar observation initiatives will expand the frontiers of solar research and improve scientists’ ability to predict space weather. Valentin Pillet, director of NSF’s National Solar Observatory said:

Boboltz, a program director in NSF’s Division of Astronomical Sciences who oversees the facility’s construction and operations, said:

Provided by: National Science Foundation [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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