Type “the sun” into Google Images and you will get thousands of beautiful photos of what looks like a bright orange ball of fire against the black backdrop of outer space. Despite the innumerable amount of pictures scientists have taken of our nearest star, there are still many unsolved mysteries as to exactly what the surface of the sun looks like.
Taken by the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) in Maui, this new image has allowed astronomers to look at the sun more closely than ever before. It reveals a surface that is divided up into cells, each one approximately the size of Texas, looking similar to the dry, cracked ground of a desert .
The difference, though, is that in the image you can see plasma oozing off of the surface. This plasma rises high into the sun’s atmosphere, then drops back down into darker lanes.
The image was taken on December 10, and Thomas Rimmele, director of DKIST, is very encouraged by the result.
“We have now seen the smallest details on the largest object in our solar system,” says Thomas Rimmele .
The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST), is the most powerful telescope in the world. Located on Haleakalā, the tallest summit in Maui, the telescope has a four-meter (13-foot) mirror which allows it to reveal features three times smaller than anything we can see on the sun’s surface today .
The focus of the telescope is to understand the sun’s explosive behavior. By observing the fingerprints of atoms and ions throughout the sun’s surface and atmosphere, scientists are hoping to be able to explain the sun’s nature .
The telescope’s massive mirror collects seven times more sunlight than any other solar telescope, which is why it is able to produce such detailed, high-quality images. Scientists started planning the construction of DKIST nearly thirty years ago, and construction finally began in 2010. The first images were taken late last year, and they expect the telescope will be operational for the next four decades .
The Controversy Surrounding DKIST
The path to completion wasn’t without its roadblocks for the telescope. Haleakalā, being that it is the highest peak in Maui, is a sacred mountain for the indigenous people of Hawaii, and so the construction of the telescope at its summit was met with large protests.
Many people were arrested throughout the process, particularly when a group of more than one hundred protesters attempted to block the road, preventing a construction convoy from getting to the summit. Joseph Henderson, who was among those who were arrested, explained his motivations:
“I was willing to lay down my life to protect one of our most sacred mountains. I’m fighting for our people. If we can’t protect one of our most sacred mountains, then how can we protect anything else we call sacred? People may look at it as a defeat because the telescope is being built but we met them with resistance every step of the way and we will meet them with resistance every time,” he said .
To resolve the conflict, Native Hawaiian leaders were given input on the project, such as building a dressing area at the summit for Hawaiian practitioners conducting ceremonies there. The DKIST has also created a 20 million dollar program at Maui college that combines science education with traditional Hawaiian culture.
“There was real dialogue that took place,” Said Jeff Khun, solar physicist who worked on the telescope. “Making a good faith effort to address Native Hawaiian concerns led to real compromise and understanding on both sides” .
The Importance of Understanding the Sun
Understanding the dynamic behavior of the sun is important because we live within its atmosphere. The sun’s magnetic fields cause solar flares and coronal mass ejections, also known as space weather, all of which can have a direct impact on earth .
These space weather patterns and events are of particular importance to farmers, the US military, aurora photographers, pilots, drone operators, meteorologists, ham operators, and anyone who needs to know about natural events that arise from space weather or who rely heavily on satellites .
Solar storms can cause flights to have to re-route, and they can affect Google maps, Uber, or any other device that depends on GPS signals. They can also cause mass power-outages, such as the twelve-hour city-wide blackout that occurred in Quebec in 1989 due to a geomagnetic storm .
Things have been relatively peaceful over the last several years as the sun comes to the end of its eleven-year solar cycle. In the middle of its cycle, however, the sun’s magnetic poles flip, which usually happens at the same time as more extreme solar activity. This is important to understand as we become more heavily reliant on technology.
“The more technology-dependent we become, the more sensitive we will be to even moderate to severe storms,” says Michael Cook, space-weather forecaster lead at Apogee Engineering, an engineering contractor .
For example, in 2017 while the Carribean was being hit by hurricanes, emergency radio communications went down. Most people assumed this was because of the storms, but it was actually because the sun was firing off large flares, killing satellite phones and amateur radio .
A New Age of Understanding
The telescope is should stay in operation for the next 44 years, and scientists are expecting even better images to come in the future. With the help of this telescope, astronomers will have a better understanding of how our sun operates, and how that will affect us on earth.
“These first images are really just the very beginning,” says Rimmele .
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