Solar insights: Stunning new images reveal the million degree outer atmosphere of the Sun in unprecedented detail

  • New images show the Sun ‘s corona up close for the first time
  • Could reveal new clues to explain how how sunspots form
  • Experiment lasted just five minutes
It is a forbidding place where temperatures reach a million degrees, and violent storms can cause havoc on Earth. However, until today scientists have been unable to get a good look at the mysterious corona of the sun.
Astronomers have revealed the unprecedented high resolution pictures which reveal what really goes on in the atmosphere of our sun.

Activity in the sun’s corona on July 11, 2012, captured by Nasa’s High Resolution Coronal Imager (Hi-C). The representative-color images were made from observations of ultraviolet light at a wavelength of 19.3 nanometers (25 times shorter than the wavelength of visible light).

The 16-megapixel images were captured by Nasa’s High Resolution Coronal Imager, or Hi-C, which was launched on a sounding rocket on July 11th.

The Hi-C telescope provides five times more detail than the next-best observations by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.

Using a new mirror design, the Hi-C telescope is able to obtain images of structures as small as 135 miles across.

Nasa compares the advance to switching from ordinary cathode ray television to high-definition TV

Scientists say the new pictures could help us understand how the sun affects earth,

Before and after: These photos of the solar corona, or million-degree outer atmosphere, show the improvement in resolution offered by NASA's High Resolution Coronal Imager

Before and after: These photos of the solar corona, or million-degree outer atmosphere, show the improvement in resolution offered by NASA’s High Resolution Coronal Imager, or Hi-C (bottom), versus the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly on NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (top).

‘Even though this mission was only a few minutes long, it marks a big breakthrough in coronal studies,’ said Smithsonian astronomer Leon Golub (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), one of the lead investigators on the mission.

Since Hi-C rode on a suborbital rocket, its flight lasted for just 10 minutes. Of that time, only about 330 seconds were spent taking data.

“The Hi-C flight might be the most productive five minutes I’ve ever spent,”

Understanding the Sun’s activity and its effects on Earth’s environment was the critical scientific objective of Hi-C, which provided unprecedented views of the dynamic activity and structure in the solar atmosphere.‘The phrase ‘think globally, act locally’ applies to the Sun too,’ said Golub.
‘Things happening at a small, local scale can impact the entire Sun and result in an eruption,’ explained Golub.

Researchers with the hi-res Hi-C rocket that took stunning images of the sun's coronaResearchers with the hi-res Nasa Hi-C rocket that took stunning images of the sun’s corona

The corona surrounds the visible surface of the Sun.

It is filled with million-degree ionized gas, or plasma, so hot that the light it emits is mainly at X-ray and extreme-ultraviolet wavelengths.

For decades, solar scientists have been trying to understand why the corona is so hot, and why it erupts in violent solar flares and related blasts known as “coronal mass ejections,” which can produce harmful effects when they hit Earth.

The Hi-C telescope was designed and built to see the extremely fine structures thought to be responsible for the Sun’s dynamic behavior.

Hi-C focused on an active region on the Sun near sunspot NOAA 1520.

The target, which was finalized on launch day, was selected specifically for its large size and active nature.

The resulting high-resolution snapshots, at a wavelength of 19.3 nanometers (25 times shorter than the wavelength of visible light), reveal tangled magnetic fields channeling the solar plasma into a range of complex structures.

The project was a collaboration between University of Central Lancashire, NASA and Smithsonian.

Dr Robert Walsh, University Director of Research at UCLan, said: ‘These first images taken by the Hi-C camera are truly awe-inspiring and have surpassed our expectations.

‘We are now able to analyse structural aspects of the Sun at a level of complexity we’ve never been able to achieve before.

‘The image quality is comparable to looking at a reflection in a steamed up mirror and then wiping it clean to reveal the true detail.

‘Findings from the Hi-C Mission will help us to understand the outer atmosphere of the Sun, learn more about the electrified gases that erupt from it along with the mechanisms that generate the energy it releases; all of which have knock on effects on Earth.’

‘We have an exceptional instrument and launched at the right time,” said Jonathan Cirtain, senior heliophysicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

‘Because of the intense solar activity we’re seeing right now, we were able to clearly focus on a sizeable, active sunspot and achieve our imaging goals.’


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