This is not a close-up of a dried orange peel but the incendiary details of the sun in outer space.
The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope, a new instrument based on Earth, has delivered its first images. These snapshots, capturing an area of the burbling solar atmosphere, are giving the world an idea of just how powerful this telescope truly is. They showcase an area over 51,000 miles across at a resolution of 11 miles per pixel — a region about as wide as nine Russias lined up side by side.
As a refresher, the sun is just under 94 million miles away from Earth.
The observatory, funded by the National Science Foundation, will capture super sharp pictures of the sun and measure the magnetic fields of solar stuff that affect “space weather,” including sunspots, flares, and coronal mass ejections — the plasma spewed from the sun’s corona. These phenomena can have catastrophic consequences, disrupting power grids and telecommunications systems on Earth.
Right now, scientists don’t know how to forecast space weather well, and though these natural events don’t happen often, they can be damaging. A solar flare in March 1989 caused all of Quebec, Canada, to experience a 12-hour power outage. It also jammed radio signals for Radio Free Europe.
The telescope, named after the late Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, will help astronomers study the underlying physics of space weather. The ground-based observatory also will work in conjunction with the telescopes capturing data in space: the Solar Orbiter, a collaborative mission of the European Space Agency and NASA launched in February 2020, and the Parker Solar Probe, a NASA spacecraft sent up two years earlier.
The Inouye telescope’s “insights will transform how our nation, and the planet, predict and prepare for events like solar storms,” NSF director Sethuraman Panchanathan said in a statement.
The solar observatory sits atop the dormant volcano Haleakalā, towering over Maui at 10,000 feet above sea level. In Hawaiian, the name Haleakalā means “house of the sun.” According to legend, the demigod Maui lassoed the bright star in the sky from the peak of the volcano to make days last longer.
Credit: NSO / AURA / NSF
But scientists, in collaboration with the Native Hawaiian people, didn’t develop the facility at the site because of its fitting name. Foundation leaders say the summit has special environmental conditions that allow astronomers to better study the solar corona.
Construction of the project began in 2012. The COVID-19 pandemic slowed down its completion, but it became fully operational in February.