This is Our Most Detailed Image of the Sun’s “Surface”

After two decades of development the Inouye Solar Telescope opened its 4-meter mirror to the Sun’s light on December 12, 2019, capturing this image in 789nm wavelength of light. (Credit: NSO / AURA / NSF)

The first image from the National Solar Observatory’s Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope shows the “surface” (i.e., the photosphere) of our Sun in the highest resolution ever obtained, revealing structures as small as 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) wide squeezed between cells of convective activity—many of them considerably larger than the state of Texas!

Looking like a tightly-packed bag of caramel kettle corn, the cell-like shapes are created by the upwelling of solar plasma in a boiling-type motion.

Rising magnetic fields, which capture some of the super-hot plasma inside the Sun and transport it up through the photosphere and into the Sun’s corona, trace bright swirling paths between them.

It may look “fiery” but there’s no fire on the Sun. Fire is a chemical process but activity on the Sun is powered by nuclear fusion. What we’re seeing here is solar plasma constrained by powerful magnetic fields and the Sun’s immense gravity.

The video below shows a zoomed-in view of the photospheric convective structures in motion, covering an area 19,000 x 10,700 kilometers (11,800 x 6,700 miles) in size.

Here I’ve dropped an image of the Earth in approximate scale size (figuring it’s on the same plane as the photosphere, which would bode poorly for Earth in real life.)

Full-Image-high w Earth
Earth to scale. NSO / AURA / NSF. Edit by Jason Major.

See more first-light images from the Inouye Solar Telescope here.

The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope is a four-meter solar telescope on the island of Maui, Hawai’i and is the largest solar telescope in the world. With a focus on understanding the Sun’s explosive behavior, observations of magnetic fields are at the forefront of this innovative telescope.

Inouye Solar Telescope on Haleakala, Maui, HI. NSO/AURA/NSF