Just released are first images and videos from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) – revealing unprecedented detail of the Sun’s surface, with experts saying it will enable a new era of solar science and a leap forward in understanding the Sun and its impacts on our planet. The new images from DKIST, a 4-meter solar telescope which sits near the summit of Haleakalā in Hawaiʻi, show a  close-up view of the Sun’s surface including a pattern of turbulent “boiling” plasma that covers the entire Sun. The images also show cell-like structures – each about the size of N. Ireland which are the signature of violent motions that transport heat from inside the Sun to its surface.

The new images were taken with cameras developed and supplied to the project by a UK consortium which involves Armagh Observatory & Planetarium, and seven other UK institutes and partners including Andor Technology, with funding provided by UK Research and Innovation’s Science and Technology Facilities Council.

Professor Gerry Doyle of Armagh Observatory & Planetarium, said: “The imaging produced by DKIST opens new horizons in solar physics. Its imaging capability allows us to study the physical processes at work in the Sun’s atmosphere at unprecedented levels of detail. We worked hard over the past few years with Belfast-based Andor Technology to develop the cameras that equip the Inouye Solar Telescope and it is highly rewarding to now see these fascinating images. Activity on the Sun, known as space weather, can affect systems on Earth.  For example, 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. This telescope will collect more information about our Sun during the first 5 years of its lifetime than all the solar data gathered since Galileo first pointed a telescope at the Sun in 1612.”

Finally resolving these tiny magnetic features is central to what makes DKIST 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. 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 for more time to secure power grids and critical infrastructure and to put satellites into safe mode.

“It’s all about the magnetic field”, said Thomas Rimmele, director of the Inouye Solar Telescope.To unravel the Sun’s biggest mysteries, we have to not only be able to clearly see these tiny structures from 93 million miles away but very precisely measure their magnetic field strength and direction near the surface and trace the field as it extends out into the million-degree corona, the outer atmosphere of the Sun.

DKIST will work with space-based solar observation facilities such as NASA’s Parker Solar Probe (currently in orbit around the Sun), the European Space Agency/NASA Solar Orbiter (soon to be launched) and NASA’s Solar Dynamic Observatory, expanding the frontiers of solar research and improve scientists’ ability to predict space weather.

Multimedia resources are available at: https://www.nso.edu/inouye-solar-telescope-first-light/ & https://www.nsf.gov/solarscience.

Media contact:  Professor Gerry Doyle

Notes to editors: The Sun is our nearest star — a gigantic nuclear reactor that burns about 5 million tonnes 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 discovered that a solar wind blows from the Sun to the edges of the solar system. They also worked out 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.

Armagh Observatory & Planetarium is funded by the N. Ireland Department for Communities. 

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