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It might be our closest star and absolutely essential for our existence, but, for the most part, the inner workings of the Sun remain a mystery to scientists. However, if the inaugural close-up of our star captured by the world's most powerful telescope — the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) — is any indication, that may soon be a thing of the past.
Unveiled by the National Science Foundation on January 30, 2020, it is the most detailed image of the Sun ever taken. While the distinct pattern may look like delicious caramel corn kernels, it is actually turbulent boiling plasma that covers the Sun's surface. The "cracks" — each about the size of France — are the patterns created by the violent movements of the solar material that rises from the core and helps transfer heat to the surface. The plasma appears bright when it first emerges at the top and then tuns into dark streaks as it cools and sinks.
"Never before seen to this clarity, these bright specks are thought to channel energy up into the outer layers of the solar atmosphere called the corona," states the National Science Foundation. "These bright spots may be at the core of why the solar corona is more than a million degrees."
Researchers hope that this, and future images captured by DKIST, which will be fully operational by July 2020, will enable them to find a way to predict the Sun's magnetic solar flares or storms. The outbursts begin with an explosion usually above a sunspot, the area where strong magnetic fields poke through the Sun's surface. When these spots become unstable, they erupt, releasing significant amounts of energy. Fortunately the fierce bursts of harmful radiation are blocked by the Earth's atmosphere and, therefore, unable to affect humans or animals on the ground. However, the coronal mass ejections (CME) — clouds of protons and other charged particles — that follow the flares within about 20 minutes can disrupt our satellite systems, GPS tracking devices, and power grids.
Understanding and predicting anomalies in the Sun's activity would allow scientists to issue warnings of potential solar flare eruptions 48 hours in advance, instead of the current 48 minutes. The extra time would provide companies with more time to secure their power grids and other infrastructure, and to turn any satellites in harm's way into safe mode.
"It's all about the magnetic field," said Thomas Rimmele, director of DKIST. "To unravel the Sun's biggest mysteries, we have to not only be able to clearly see these tiny structures from 93 million miles away but very precisely measure their magnetic field strength and direction near the surface and trace the field as it extends out into the million-degree corona, the outer atmosphere of the Sun."
Situated atop a 10,118-foot-high (3,084-meter) dormant volcano in Maui, Hawaii, the DKIST is a collaboration between scientists from 22 US institutions, including NASA. Fitted with a 4-meter wide aperture — twice the size of any existing solar telescope — and a 13-foot mirror, it boasts one of the world's most complex solar-adaptive optics systems. Unlike most ground-based telescopes, which are used at nighttime, the DKIST will spend most its working life pointed directly at the Sun. The large amounts of focused light and heat energy absorbed causes the telescope to generate an incredible amount of heat — hot enough to melt metal. To lower the telescope's scorching temperature, the DKIST team has built a specialized cooling system comprising a massive pool of ice and coolant running through 7.5 miles of pipes.
NASA's Parker Solar Probe will aid DKIST in its mission. Launched in 2018 with a mission to "touch" the Sun, the probe is currently just 11.6 million miles (18.6 million kilometers) away from the star's surface. If all goes according to plan, the probe will get to within 3.83 million miles of the surface by 2024, providing scientists with unprecedented insights into the Sun. Though the European Space Agency's Solar Orbiter, scheduled for launch on February 9, 2020, will not get as close to the Sun as Parker, it will help better our understanding of how the star impacts our Solar System.
Resources: Cnet.com, Sciencemag.org,modernmet.com