The National Science Foundation's Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope is used to study the sun. It can take images of the sun's surface and it's lower atmosphere, and it's the largest solar telescope in the world. Scientists have now released its first image of a sunspot, even though the telescope is not quite completed just yet. Construction is expected to end next year.
This image is not the sunspot that is currently visible on the sun; it was taken on January 28, 2020. It's been reported in a new paper in Solar Physics.
"The sunspot image achieves a spatial resolution about 2.5 times higher than ever previously achieved, showing magnetic structures as small as 20 kilometers on the surface of the sun," said study leader Dr. Thomas Rimmele, the associate director at NSF's National Solar Observatory (NSO).
This image is of an area that is roughly 10,000 miles wide, and is only a small part of the sun. The sunspot, however, is big enough that Earth could fit inside of it.
Tentacles of hot and cooler gases street out from the dark center, which is sculpted by the interaction of powerful magnetic fields and hot gases streaming up from underneath. The magnetic fields concentrated in this dark area keep the heat inside the Sun from getting to the surface. For the Sun, the region is downright balmy at a cool 7,500 degrees Fahrenheit.
It's thought that the more sunspots that are visible o the sun, the more active the Sun is. The solar minimum, a period with the fewest sunspots during the Sun's eleven-year cycle, occurred in late 2019. The next solar maximum is expected in mid-2025.
"With this solar cycle just beginning, we also enter the era of the Inouye Solar Telescope," says Dr. Matt Mountain, president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), the organization that manages NSO and the Inouye Solar Telescope. "We can now point the world's most advanced solar telescope at the Sun to capture and share incredibly detailed images and add to our scientific insights about the Sun's activity."
Solar activity can affect life on Earth. Solar storms are associated with magnetic fields, some of which are strong enough to disrupt technology on earth like GPS navigation, power grids, communication, satellites, or air travel. The Inouye Solar Telescope will hopefully help us learn more about the Sun and how it might impact us.
"While the start of telescope operations has been slightly delayed due to the impacts of the COVID-19 global pandemic," said Dr. David Boboltz, NSF Program Director for the Inouye Solar Telescope, "this image represents an early preview of the unprecedented capabilities that the facility will bring to bear on our understanding of the Sun."