New telescope reveals most detailed images of sun’s surface

Inouye Solar Telescope to play critical role in better understanding sun, space weather

The first images from a newly operational telescope reveal unprecedented detail of the sun’s surface and preview the transformative images to come from this 13-foot solar telescope.

The National Science Foundation’s Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope, on the summit of Haleakala 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.

“Those of us fascinated by the sun—and who would not be?—have been waiting since the 1980s to see the sun at high resolution, to see if the amazing structuring of its surface, from the grand sunspots down to the ‘salt and pepper’ smaller magnetic field structure, continues to yet smaller spatial scales. And it does!” said Robert Rosner, the William E. Wrather Distinguished Service Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Chicago, who is the co-primary investigator of the project. “And the physics to be mined from this result, these remarkable images, are just so exciting—we can’t wait for more!”

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 off and then sinks below the surface in dark lanes in a process known as convection.

The telescope, named for late Hawaiian senator David Inouye, began construction in 2010, but has been in planning for decades—in fact, it was famed University of Chicago solar scientist and Prof. Emeritus Eugene Parker, who headed the planning committee back in the 1980s.

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