This is the best picture we have ever taken of the surface of the sun. It was captured by the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) in Hawaii, the largest solar telescope in the world, on its first day observing our star.
The honeycomb-like pattern is made up of “cells” of plasma that roil over the sun’s entire surface and draw heat out from the centre. The bright centres of the cells mark where plasma is rising, and the dark outlines are where it is sinking back into the sun. Each cell is hundreds of kilometres across – the size of France or even larger.
This image has more than five times the resolution of pictures from the next-best solar telescope, said Thomas Rimmele, the director of DKIST, during a press call. It shows structures on the sun’s surface that are as small as 30 kilometres across.
The video below shows 10 minutes of the sun’s turbulence condensed down to 14 seconds, and covers an area of about 200 million square kilometres.
“We have now seen the smallest details on the largest object in our solar system,” said Rimmele. “What we previously thought looked like a bright point, one structure, is now breaking down into many smaller structures.” This is the first time we have been able to observe those small structures.
And this is just the beginning. The image and video were taken on 10 December, the first day of the telescope’s operations, and several other scientific instruments have yet to be installed. In the next six months, DKIST will be able to measure the magnetic fields of these relatively small features on the sun in addition to taking pictures of them, Rimmele said.
He hopes that those measurements will help us figure out why the tenuous outer layer of the sun, called the corona, is so much hotter than the surface.
“Magnetic fields at the smallest sizes are the key to solving this mystery,” Rimmele said. DKIST is also intended to help us predict solar eruptions, when the sun sends blasts of plasma towards Earth that can be dangerous for satellites and electric grids.