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Unprecedented images reveal what happens to the Sun as it approaches solar maximum

Unprecedented images reveal what happens to the Sun as it approaches solar maximum

(News) — New images of the Sun’s surface taken by a powerful ground-based solar telescope have revealed sunspots and other features in unprecedented detail.

The eight images, released on May 19, 2023, were taken with the National Science Foundation’s Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope, a 4-meter telescope located on the island of Maui, Hawaii.

Although the sun is more and more active As the July 2025 solar maximum approaches, the high point of the 11-year solar cycle, the photos show the calmer aspects of the solar surface.

Cool, dark sunspots dot the photosphere, the surface of the Sun where the magnetic field is strongest, and can be the size of Earth or larger. Clusters of sunspots are the cause of solar flares and coronal mass ejections, which occur when plasma and part of the magnetic field break off from the Sun’s outer atmosphere, or corona, and pass through the solar system.

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These energetic bursts from the Sun can affect Earth’s satellite communications.

The sunspot regions shown in the images are a study in contrast. Hot, bright plasma flows up the Sun’s surface, while darker, cooler plasma flows down. In the chromosphere, the atmospheric layer above the surface, threadlike structures reveal the presence of magnetic fields.

Fine, detailed structures can be seen in dark sunspots, including bright spots that exist where the magnetic field is strongest. Bright filaments derived from the magnetic field called penumbral filaments, which carry heat, surround the sunspot.

Points and filaments shine in and around a sunspot. (Credit: NSF/AURA/NSO)

Another image shows a sunspot that has lost most of its brighter surrounding region, or penumbra, which appears to be waning. The researchers believe that the remaining fragments could be the end point in the evolution of a sunspot, before it disappears.

The telescope captured an image of what scientists believe shows a decaying sunspot. (Credit: NSF/AURA/NSO)

The Inouye Solar Telescope also caught a glimpse of “light bridges,” bright solar features that cut across the darker region of a sunspot. These complex structures can look different, but scientists believe that the light bridges could indicate that a sunspot is about to disappear. Future observations could provide more information about the formation of light bridges and their meaning.

A bridge of light spans a dark sunspot. (Credit: NSF/AURA/NSO)

The images taken over the past year are among the first observations made with the world’s largest and most powerful ground-based solar telescope during its commissioning phase, according to the National Science Foundation. The telescope is currently being tuned up to reach its full operational capacity, according to the agency.

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Scientists hope that the telescope’s capabilities will allow them to answer key questions about the Sun, including the origin of solar storms, as well as unravel the intricacies of its magnetic field.

The telescope was designed to make continuous measurements of the solar corona magnetic fields and provide images of the solar atmosphere like never before. Compared to the imaging capabilities of other observatories, Inouye can image solar features three times smaller.

Solar data obtained from the Inouye Solar Telescope, as well as two space missions called Solar Orbiter and Parker Solar Probe, can help unlock some of the Sun’s most enduring mysteries, while providing amazing views of our star in a new light. light.

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