NASA Releases Highest-Resolution Images Of The Sun Ever Taken
The highest-resolution images ever taken of the Sun have provided researchers with ‘remarkable insight’ to the star’s atmosphere.
The ultra-sharp images were taken by NASA’s unique astronomical telescope, the High-Resolution Coronal Imager (Hi-C), and analysed by researchers at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) and collaborators from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre (MSFC).
A sub-orbital rocket flight carried the telescope into space, where it was capable of picking out structures in the Sun’s atmosphere as small as 70km in size, or around 0.01% the size of the Sun.
Hi-C has produced the highest-resolution images ever taken of the Sun’s atmosphere, providing astronomers with a better understanding of how the Sun’s magnetised atmosphere exists and what it is comprised of.
UCLan Professor of Solar Physics Robert Walsh, who was also institutional lead for the Hi-C team, spoke about how these images are different to those taken in the past, saying:
Until now, solar astronomers have effectively been viewing our closest star in ‘standard definition’, whereas the exceptional quality of the data provided by the Hi-C telescope allows us to survey a patch of the Sun in ‘ultra-high definition’ for the first time.
Think of it like this: if you are watching a football match on television in standard definition, the football pitch looks green and uniform. Watch the same game in ultra-HD and the individual blades of grass can jump out at you – and that’s what we’re able to see with the Hi-C images. We are catching sight of the constituent parts that make up the atmosphere of the star.
Before the Hi-C images depicted the Sun’s atmosphere in more detail, certain parts of it had appeared dark or mostly empty. However, the new images, detailed in Astrophysical Journal, have revealed its outer layer is filled with previously unseen, incredibly fine magnetic threads filled with extremely hot, million-degree plasma.
Images show strands that are around 500km in width – roughly the distance between London and Belfast – with hot electrified gases flowing inside them.
The exact physical mechanism creating these pervasive hot strands is unclear, so researchers will now focus their efforts on figuring out why they are formed and how their presence helps us understand the eruption of solar flares and solar storms that could affect life on Earth.
Dr Amy Winebarger, Hi-C principal investigator at NASA MSFC, commented:
These new Hi-C images give us a remarkable insight into the Sun’s atmosphere. Along with ongoing missions such as Probe and SolO, this fleet of space-based instruments in the near future will reveal the Sun’s dynamic outer layer in a completely new light.
Dr Tom Williams, a postdoctoral researcher at UCLan who worked on the Hi-C data, added:
This is a fascinating discovery that could better inform our understanding of the flow of energy through the layers of the Sun and eventually down to Earth itself. This is so important if we are to model and predict the behaviour of our life-giving star.
Following the success of Hi-C’s mission, the international team of researchers are now progressing plans to launch the Hi-C rocket once again. The new launch will overlap their observations with NASA’s Parker Solar Probe and ESA’s Solar Orbiter (SolO), two Sun-observing spacecraft currently gathering further data.
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