Scientists Snap 'Most Detailed Images of the Sun Ever Taken,' Heralding New Era in Solar Science

Researchers have snapped the most detailed images of the sun ever taken using an advanced new telescope in Hawaii.

The pictures provide unprecedented views of the surface of our star, which will benefit solar scientists and perhaps yield answers to some of its enduring mysteries.

The images captured by the Inouye Solar Telescope based on the Hawaiian island of Maui—which is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF)—show tiny features in the sun's magnetic field which have never been seen before.

"These are the most detailed images of the sun ever taken," Claire Raftery, a spokesperson from the NSF's National Solar Observatory (NSO)—which built and operates the telescope—told Newsweek. "They show features as small as 30 kilometers [19 miles]. For comparison, the previous largest publicly funded solar telescope could see features 160 kilometers (99 miles) in size, so that is more than a factor of five better."

"We are, for the first time, able to resolve detail in the smallest features of the sun's magnetic field. These tiny bright specks are thought to channel energy up into the outer layers of the solar atmosphere called the corona," she said.

the sun, Inouye Solar Telescope
The Inouye Solar Telescope has captured the highest resolution image of the sun’s surface ever taken. In the image it is possible to see features as small as 18 miles. NSO/NSF/AURA

According to Raftery, these bright specks may even help scientists to explain the mystery of why the temperature of the sun's corona is more than a million degrees Celsius, and hotter than the star's surface, which measures around 5,500 degrees Celsius.

The primary mirror of the Inouye Solar Telescope—based on the 10,000-foot-high summit of Haleakala—is the secret to its power, in addition to the state-of-the-art instrumentation that has been incorporated into the facility.

"It has a 4-meter (13-feet) primary mirror," Raftery said. "The primary mirror of the next largest telescope is 1.6 meters (5.2 feet). This huge jump in collecting area gives us the ability to probe smaller and smaller details on the sun than ever before."

Researchers say that the telescope—alongside NASA's Parker Solar Probe, which is currently in orbit around the star, and the upcoming European Space Agency/NASA Solar Orbiter—will herald a new era for solar science.

"It's an exciting time to be a solar physicist," Valentin Pillet, director of the NSO, said in a statement. "The Inouye Solar Telescope will provide remote sensing of the outer layers of the sun and the magnetic processes that occur in them. These processes propagate into the solar system where the Parker Solar Probe and Solar Orbiter missions will measure their consequences.

"Altogether, they constitute a genuinely multi-messenger undertaking to understand how stars and their planets are magnetically connected."

Data from these probes and the Inouye telescope—which saw its first light in 2019—will help scientists to better understand space weather, which can have negative impacts on Earth, such as disrupting air travel, communications systems and power grids.

"On Earth, we can predict if it is going to rain pretty much anywhere in the world very accurately, and space weather just isn't there yet," Matt Mountain, president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy—which manages the Inouye Solar Telescope—said in a statement.

"Our predictions lag behind terrestrial weather by 50 years, if not more. What we need is to grasp the underlying physics behind space weather, and this starts at the sun, which is what the Inouye Solar Telescope will study over the next decades."

Over the next six months, scientists and engineers at the telescope will continue testing and commissioning instruments so it will be ready for use by researchers around the world.

"This is just the beginning for the Inouye Solar Telescope," Raftery said. "As more instruments come online, this 'Swiss Army Knife' of instrumentation will allow us to probe the finest details of the sun's magnetism. This is essential for our understanding of what drives solar eruptions known as space weather."