The recently unveiled Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope in Hawaii has provided astronomers with incredibly detailed images of the sun, allowing them to examine sunspots and the sun’s “quiet regions” in unprecedented detail.
Funded by the National Science Foundation, the observatory was designed to capture high-resolution images of the sun and measure its magnetic fields, which play a crucial role in space weather phenomena such as sunspots, solar flares, and coronal mass ejections.
Understanding and forecasting solar storms is of great importance due to their potential to disrupt power grids and telecommunication systems on Earth. However, current forecasting capabilities are limited, and the consequences of severe solar storms can be significant. For example, a solar flare in March 1989 caused a 12-hour power outage in Quebec, Canada, and disrupted radio signals for Radio Free Europe.
The construction of the observatory, which cost $300 million, faced challenges and controversy as it was built on the summit of the dormant volcano Haleakalā on the island of Maui. The location offers unique environmental conditions for studying the sun’s corona, but it is also considered sacred land by many Hawaiians who view the mountain peak as a spiritual place. Protests and legal battles ensued during the construction process, but the project was eventually completed.
New images from the @NSF's Daniel K #InouyeSolarTelescope! Light bridges, sunspots, and other structures are featured. These images were drafted from data obtained during the first Cycle of observations, previewing the exciting science underway: https://t.co/VHHorpslmp #NSFfunded pic.twitter.com/68CRRIQ8St— NatlSolarObservatory (@NatSolarObs) May 19, 2023
The images captured by the telescope reveal sunspots that are as large as or even larger than Earth. Sunspots appear dark because they are cooler than the surrounding areas on the sun’s surface. They can also be the source of solar flares, which are sudden explosions of energy caused by twisted magnetic field lines.
The telescope also observed the sun’s “quiet regions,” which exhibit low solar activity. These images show bright patterns of hot plasma surrounded by darker lanes of cooler plasma. Additionally, the telescope revealed long, dark fibers emerging from small magnetic field clumps in the sun’s atmosphere, resembling a shag carpet or a mop head when viewed up close.
The first ever sunspot observations from a telescope (by Galileo), versus the newly released sunspot images from the @NSF's Inouye Solar Telescope. We’ve come a long way! pic.twitter.com/FrmaIn2TgP— Dr. Ryan French (@RyanJFrench) May 21, 2023
The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope will work in conjunction with other space-based telescopes, including the Solar Orbiter and the Parker Solar Probe, to gather comprehensive data about the sun and improve our understanding of its behavior and the impacts of solar activity on Earth.