Studying the Sun isn't as simple as viewing it through a regular telescope. To capture our home star's surface in extreme detail, the National Solar Observatory designed a telescope that can account for the distortion of the Earth's atmosphere while withstanding extreme heat. Now, MIT Technology Review reports that the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope has snapped the highest-resolution photo of the Sun yet—and it looks like corn.
Never before has the Sun been captured in greater detail than in the image above. Rather than the uniform yellow disk we see from Earth, the photograph shows a star with a crackled surface of smushed-together cells resembling the contents of a Cracker Jack bag. Those kernel-shaped blobs are actually plasma bubbles roiling on the Sun's surface, and each one is roughly the size of Texas.
Some clever engineering was used to get this unprecedented look of the star that powers our solar system. Located in Maui, Hawaii, the National Science Foundation's National Solar Observatory outfitted the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope with a 13-foot mirror. The mirror is constantly adjusting itself, changing its shape 2000 times per second to cancel out the distortions of the Earth's atmosphere and get a clear view of the Sun. Pointing a massive mirror at the Sun also generates a dangerous amount of heat. To stop the telescope from melting, it's cooled by a system consisting of a swimming pool's worth of ice and coolant distributed by 7.5 miles of piping.
The high-defintion picture of the Sun isn't just pretty to look at; it can also teach scientists about phenomena that affect our home planet. "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," France Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation, said in a news release. "This telescope will improve our understanding of what drives space weather and ultimately help forecasters better predict solar storms.”
By getting an intimate view of the Sun, astronomers hope to finally unravel some of its mysteries, like why its outer atmosphere, or corona, is so much hotter than its surface, and which forces dictate its magnetic seasons. This image is just a preview—the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope is still being built, and formal observations don't begin until July. The plan is to use the telescope to capture at least four solar cycles, or 44 years of data.
[h/t MIT Technology Review]