Super high-definition images of the sun’s sunspots have been captured by a telescope, showing tiny dots of plasma bubbling away within the dark spot.
The images were taken by National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope in Hawaii, which is the world’s most powerful ground-based solar telescope. The pictures show the sunspots as dark splotches on the sun’s orange surface, spotted with pin-prick flashes of orange known as “umbral dots.”
Scientists hope that the Inouye Solar Telescope will “capture data in unprecedented detail [and] will help solar scientists better understand the Sun’s magnetic field and drivers behind solar storms,” the NSF said in a statement.
Sunspots are dark spots on the sun’s surface caused by regions of especially strong magnetic fields. These powerful and twisted magnetic fields can prevent the sun’s internal heat from reaching the surface, causing the region to be cooler and therefore appear darker.
“Sunspots are small regions where there is very strong magnetic field emerging from the Sun’s interior into the surrounding space, so lots of sunspots means a lot of magnetic activity,” Huw Morgan, head of the Solar Physics group at Aberystwyth University in the U.K., told Newsweek.
Due to this higher level of activity, sunspots are more prone to outbursts of solar activity, including spitting out X-rays in the form of solar flares, and huge clouds of solar plasma as coronal mass ejections (CMEs).
“More sunspots, and more complicated groupings of sunspots, certainly makes the Sun more likely to flare or release a CME – this is because the configuration of the strong magnetic field arising from the sunspots is more complicated, and more prone to instability,” Morgan said.
Umbral dots, as seen in the pictures are tiny balls of solar plasma within the sunspot region rising and falling due to turbulent convection cells, dredging up heat from deeper within the sun, similar to a bubbling pan of water on a hot stove.
The CMEs and solar flares emitted by sunspot regions can collide with the Earth, causing geomagnetic storms in the Earth’s atmosphere due to interactions with the magnetic field and the molecules of gas.
“The CME causes the Earth’s magnetic field to move and reconfigure rapidly, and can also inject energetic particles into the Earth’s atmosphere. These particles plunge towards the poles, and collide with molecules in the atmosphere, causing light of different colors depending on which molecules are hit,” Morgan previously told Newsweek.
Geomagnetic storms usually lead to the spectacular light shows known as the auroras, or the northern and southern lights.
“Auroras are caused by electrons coming from space and are much like old-fashioned fluorescent lamps, which also have high-voltage electrons in them. Depending on the voltage on the electrons, various colors of auroras are dominant,” Martin Connors, a professor of space science and physics at Athabasca University in Canada, previously told Newsweek.
Geomagnetic storms can also have a number of impacts on Earth’s infrastructure and radio transmissions.
Sunspots and solar activity are expected to increase over the next few years as the sun approaches its next solar maximum in 2025. The current cycle is the 25th since they were first recorded in 1755, with the last solar minimum occurring in 2019.
“Sunspots can be used to monitor the sun as it goes through its natural 11-year cycle,” David Wallace, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Mississippi State University, told Newsweek. “During this cycle, the solar activity will increase and decrease. Scientists can use sunspots to help determine the amount of solar activity that is occurring and predict what stage of the 11-year cycle the sun is at.”
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