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The US National Science Foundation (NSF) this week celebrated the first year of operation of the Inouye Telescope, the world’s most powerful ground-based solar telescope. On this occasion, the government organization proudly released two spectacular and unusual photos of our star, revealing new details of her atmosphere. Although each image covers an area several times the size of the Earth (82,500 km), they only show a small part of the star. However, Inouye had not yet fully exploited his abilities and was able to create other equally magnificent images.
The first image taken by the Solar Telescope (cover image) is an image of the chromosphere, which was previously only visible from Earth during an eclipse. Thanks to the very high resolution, we can see that the middle layer of the Sun’s atmosphere appears to be quite hairy and flaunts what appear to be long, silky hairs that are actually fiery jets of plasma.
The second image shows an even more detailed view of the chromospheric layer. You can see thousands of cells (or granules) through which molten jets emanate. Each granule is 500 to 1600 km wide and, like bubbles, travels at 1.6 to 2.6 km per second and bursts in just 10 minutes. The images are so large that they cover an area of 82,500 km. For comparison, the diameter of the Earth is only 12,700 km.
Close-up of the solar chromosphere with individual granules. © NSO/AURA/NSF
Ideal performance and conditions
The high performance of the Inouye telescope is made possible by its giant four-meter mirror, the largest of any telescope designed to observe the Sun. This mirror captures seven times more light than any other ground-based telescope. It is the culmination of 25 years of research, including thousands of hours of observation, years of designing the telescope, searching for ideal locations, and more.
The observatory is really located on the island of Maui (Hawaii), on Mount Haleakala at an altitude of 3000 meters above sea level. At this altitude, the sky is almost always free of light pollution, and atmospheric disturbances are minimal at this location.
The telescope is also designed to observe the Sun from close range in order to predict solar storms. “NSF’s Inouye Solar Telescope is the world’s most powerful solar telescope and will forever change the way we explore and understand our sun,” said NSF Director Seturaman Panchanathan. “His research will change how our country and planet predict and prepare for events like solar storms,” he adds.
Controversial (telescope) design
You should know that the telescope is built on a mountain considered sacred by the native Hawaiians. However, NSF officials claim to have consulted with them about the construction. “In particular, we thank the people of Hawaii for the privilege of working from this remarkable site, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Congress for their continued support, and our team at the Inouye Solar Telescope, many of whom have been tirelessly dedicated over the past decade.” says Matt Mountain, president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy. This statement seems to imply that the site has been approved by the natives.
However, some of them did not seem to approve of the project. For these natives, this would be a reckless desecration of their place of worship. However, NSF believes this is an opportunity to both advance the science of the Sun and strengthen good relationships with local communities by providing a new source of employment and education. Traditional Hawaiian worship was performed when the site was opened and the natives were included in the telescope’s survey teams.