New footage offering the best-ever look at the sun shows the surface of the star bubbling and seething like melted caramel on popcorn — if each popcorn kernel was the size of Texas.
The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) has released the footage after its new Inouye Solar Telescope captured the pictures from its perch atop Haleakala, a volcano in Maui, Hawaii. The four-metre-long telescope is the strongest yet to photograph the sun.
The telescope’s first images show a cell-like network of “boiling” plasma on the sun’s surface, according to a news release from the NSF. The cellular bubbles are created by the violent motion of hot plasma bursting out from the sun’s core, then sinking into darkened channels between the other bubbles as it cools.
Each “cell” is about the size of Texas, the NSF says.
NSF director France Cordova hailed the new footage as a significant step in understanding the sun, which directly impacts the Earth’s weather with its violent solar storms and twisting magnetic fields.
“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,” Cordova said in the news release.
“This telescope will improve our understanding of what drives space weather and ultimately help forecasters better predict solar storms.”
Mapping the sun’s magnetic fields could help scientists predict problems on Earth such as GPS disruptions, satellite glitches and power grid failures.
The sun is about 4.6 billion years old and approximately one million times larger than the Earth, although its surface is nothing like our planet. The sun is a massive nuclear furnace of superheated gases with a core temperature of 15 million C.
The Inouye Solar Telescope can now look at the sun’s surface, but it’s also expected to help with understanding the superheated outer atmosphere surrounding it, which is known as the corona.
The Inouye Solar Telescope is just one of the many ways astronomers are studying the sun. It’s the perfect subject to research as the closest star to our planet and the only one known to have life (i.e. us) in orbit around it.
The new footage sparked many comparisons to food on Twitter, with people likening the sun to caramel popcorn, peanut brittle and peanut bars, a popular snack in India.
“The sun is made of caramel and peanuts?” one person tweeted. “Amazing!”