Astronomers have just released the “first-light” observations from the National Science Foundation’s Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope. The team revealed incredible new images and videos of the solar disk in unprecedented detail, showcasing structures as small as 30 kilometers (18 miles).
The achievement was only possible thanks to its 4-meter (13-foot) mirror, which makes the Inouye Solar Telescope the largest solar telescope in the world. Still, the act of actually observing the Sun is not an easy task. The main mirror focuses 13 kilowatts of power, generating an incredible amount of heat. For this reason, a cooling system is in place to protect the instruments and make the observatory accessible for the researchers. The achievement is more than 20 years in the making.
“Since NSF began work on this ground-based telescope, we have eagerly awaited the first images,” France Córdova, National Science Foundation director, said in a statement. “We can now share these images and videos, which are the most detailed of our Sun to date. NSF’s Inouye Solar Telescope will be able to map the magnetic fields within the Sun’s corona, where solar eruptions occur that can impact life on Earth. This telescope will improve our understanding of what drives space weather and ultimately help forecasters better predict solar storms.”
Future observations from the Solar Telescope will reveal more about how the Sun's outer layers change over time and the underlying magnetic processes that happen deep within them. This will aid researchers in their quest to understand better our star and how it affects us. Predicting solar storms is still beyond our ability, but the data from the telescope will help in that effort.
“These first images are just the beginning,” said David Boboltz, a program director in NSF’s Division of Astronomical Sciences who oversees the facility’s construction and operations. “Over the next six months, the Inouye telescope’s team of scientists, engineers and technicians will continue testing and commissioning the telescope to make it ready for use by the international solar scientific community. The Inouye Solar Telescope will collect more information about our Sun during the first 5 years of its lifetime than all the solar data gathered since Galileo first pointed a telescope at the Sun in 1612.”
The telescope was named after the late Senator Inouye, who was a senator for Hawaii from 1963 to 2012 and the highest-ranking Asian-American politician in US history.