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First-ever close-up images of the Sun

Donna Coutts, January 30, 2020 8:00AM Kids News

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This is the highest-resolution image of the Sun ever taken. Picture: NSO/NSF/AURA media_cameraThis is the highest-resolution image of the Sun ever taken. Picture: NSO/NSF/AURA

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Scientists have released the first photographs of the Sun from the new solar telescope in Hawaii.

And the view of our home star is incredible, showing churning plasma* that looks like a sea of gold nuggets.

The nuggets are plasma rising from deeper within the Sun and the darker borders between the nuggets show where plasma is cooling and sinking. The brightest spot at the centre of each nugget is the hottest plasma and is about 6000C.

Each nugget is about the size of France (644,000 sqkm) or almost three times the size of the state of Victoria (227,000 sqkm).

Watch: First-ever close-up of the Sun

Previously, we had only seen hazy images of the Sun that indicated a patchwork-looking surface.

The photos were taken in December by the 4m Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST), which sits on Haleakala mountain on Maui, Hawaii, US. The telescope is run by the US National Science Foundation (NSF).

Construction won’t be finished until June this year and scientists will start detailed research in July, so to get such high-quality images early is unexpected.

DKIST’s massive mirror can study objects as small as 35km across, viewed from 150 million kilometres away on Earth.

Getting ready for the Volcom Pipe Pro media_cameraA surfer rides a wave in Hawaii on January 28, 2020. The telescope, also in Hawaii, is so powerful it can study objects as small 35km wide on the surface of the Sun 150 million kilometres away. Picture: AFP

The mirror is pointed directly at the Sun, so keeping it a constant, cool temperature was one of the biggest design challenges. The heat it captures is enough to melt metal.

To keep the mirror cool, each night, enough ice to fill a swimming pool is made on site and emptied into tanks. During the day, a coolant liquid that absorbs heat from the mirror travels through 12km of pipes within the ice tanks.

Air is also blown onto the back of the mirror to help cool it.

Previously, the biggest solar telescope was the 1.6m telescope at Big Bear Solar Observatory in southern California, US.

Scientists say the upgrade will transform solar science.

“It’s an exciting time to be a solar physicist*,” said Valentin Pillet, director of NSF’s National Solar Observatory.

“We have eagerly awaited the first images,” said France Córdova, NSF director.

“NSF’s Inouye Solar Telescope will be able to map the magnetic fields within the Sun’s corona*, where solar eruptions occur that can impact life on Earth. This telescope will improve our understanding of what drives space weather and ultimately* help forecasters better predict solar storms.”

Scientists know much less about space weather than they do about the weather on Earth. Space weather events can make GPS systems unreliable and shut down power networks and communication systems.

Better understanding the origins of potential disasters will help organisations better prepare for space weather events, for instance, by having time to put satellites into safe mode.

DKIST will work with the Parker Solar Probe, which is already sending back solar observations, and the Solar Orbiter mission, set to launch next week.

media_cameraArtist’s illustration of NASA’s Parker Solar Probe. Picture: AFP/NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

FAST FACTS

  • The Sun is our nearest star.
  • Earth is within its atmosphere.
  • It accounts for more than 99 per cent of the mass of our Solar System.
  • It is an almost perfect sphere that is 110 times the diameter of Earth.
  • It burns about 4.5 million tonnes of hydrogen fuel every second and has been doing this for about 5 billion years. It will continue to do this for about another 4.5 billion years.

GLOSSARY

  • plasma: a state of matter with a lot of energy. Similar to gas, but with a different form of energy. Stars are mostly made of plasma
  • physicist: scientist who studies energy and matter
  • corona: outermost part of the Sun’s atmosphere
  • ultimately: in the end

EXTRA READING

NASA’s totally unexpected Sun surprise

NASA solar probe starts flying into Sun

Space telescope spies massive storm on Jupiter

QUICK QUIZ

  1. How big is each area that looks like a nugget of gold?
  2. When and where were the images taken?
  3. What will the telescope help scientists understand?
  4. When is the Solar Orbiter Mission due to launch?
  5. How big is the Sun compared to Earth?

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Be inspired!
Create an artwork that is inspired by the amazing photos taken by DKIST.

Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Visual Arts

2. Extension
List all of the new information about the Sun that the photographs taken by DKIST have shown scientists. Do you think that there are important things about the Sun that we don’t know? Write them down and explain why you think that they are important.

Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science, Critical and Creative Thinking

VCOP ACTIVITY
With a partner see if you can identify all the doing words/verbs in this text. Highlight them in yellow and then make a list of them all down your page. Now see if you and your partner can come up with a synonym for the chosen verb. Make sure it still makes sense in the context it was taken from.

Try to replace some of the original verbs with your synonyms and discuss if any are better and why.

HAVE YOUR SAY: What things in space would you like to see close-up?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

Extra Reading in space