Fall in Love With the Sun Again

It is not advised, under any circumstances, to look directly at the sun. Our eyes are no match for its blaze, and the light can damage them within seconds, sometimes permanently. Remember all those news stories back in 2017, warning people to wear special, protective glasses during the solar eclipse so that they didn’t burn off their retinas? Those were good warnings.

The trick is to get a very expensive telescope to do it for you.

Astronomers this week released what they say is the most detailed view of the sun ever captured. There it is, squirming at the top of this article. The amber cells are the scorching plasma that covers the surface of the sun like a honeycomb. Hot gas rises from the brightest centers of the blobs, cools off, and then sinks back down into the dark crevices around them. Each molten cell is about the size of Texas.

The image comes from an observatory perched atop a dormant volcano in Hawaii. The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope, named for the longtime Hawaii senator who died in 2013, just started capturing data last month.

If this is what the first batch looks like, the rest seem guaranteed to bend our perception of the sun as a blinding spot in the sky. This doesn’t look like the sun at all. The zoomed-in view feels like a cosmic Rorschach test. Do you see nuggets of gold or popcorn kernels? Do you feel a sudden, confusing desire to eat it? Either way, I am mesmerized.

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The GIF is more than a pretty picture. Scientists are poised to learn more about the sun in the next few years than ever before. NASA launched a probe to study the sun in 2018, and the mission is already returning exciting results. Another solar probe, this one from the European Space Agency, is launching next week. The Inouye facility is the world’s largest solar telescope and is scheduled to begin operations in earnest in July. The observatory is equipped with a host of high-tech hardware, including a cooling system that helps manage the enormous amount of heat the telescope has to handle. (Even for a machine, staring at the sun has its dangers.)

The exact details are a tangle of technical jargon, but this sentiment, from David Boboltz, the National Science Foundation program director who oversees operations, conveys nicely just how sophisticated this facility is: “The Inouye Solar Telescope will collect more information about our sun during the first five years of its lifetime than all the solar data gathered since Galileo first pointed a telescope at the sun in 1612.”

The Inouye telescope and the new spacecraft are designed to investigate some fundamental questions about the sun. Astronomers have managed to reach across the universe and catch the light of the most distant stars, but the nearest one still remains a mystery in many ways.

No one knows, for example, how solar wind is produced, and yet we—and all the other planets, as far out as Pluto—exist within this invisible breeze. Nor does anyone know why the sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona, is hotter than the roiling surface, or how magnetic forces in this scorching layer produce flares. Such eruptions could be powerful enough to knock out power grids on Earth and satellites in orbit.

Data from the Inouye telescope, astronomers say, will make it possible to predict potentially dangerous solar events two days in advance—much earlier than the current standard, which is less than an hour—and give operators around the world the chance to secure important infrastructure. In 2017, as Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm, made landfall in the Caribbean, a solar flare pointed right at Earth caused a radio blackout in sunlit parts of the world. For eight hours, emergency personnel couldn’t use high-frequency radio to communicate.

The new view of the sun reminds me of another recent baffling image from out of space: the first photo of a black hole. It is not a perfect comparison; getting a closeup look at the black hole in the center of another galaxy was much harder to do, requiring a global, years-long effort and more powerful technology. But the effect, to the untrained eye, is similar: the rush of witnessing something unfathomably distant, a place whose meaning can be understood but which is impossible to visit, appear on the screen inches before our eyes.