New telescope visualizes roiling cells of plasma at the Sun’s surface

Reader Mark called my attention to these new videos from the Daniel K. Inouye solar telescope, a four-meter scope near the summit of Haleakala, Maui, in Hawai‘i (you can read about it at the National Science Foundation’s site here). It’s taken some stunning pictures of the Sun’s surface, including giant roiling cells of plasma shown in the “video” below, which appears to be time-lapse photography, but is no less impressive because of that. The NSF site notes this:

The first images from NSF’s Inouye Solar Telescope show a close-up view of the Sun’s surface, which can provide important detail for scientists. The images show a pattern of turbulent “boiling” plasma that covers the entire Sun. The cell-like structures — each about the size of Texas — are the signature of violent motions that transport heat from the inside of the Sun to its surface. That hot solar plasma rises in the bright centers of “cells,” cools off and then sinks below the surface in dark lanes in a process known as convection. (See video available with this news release.)

And the video, by SciNews, adds this:

The first movie covers an area of 36,500 x 36,500 km (22,600 x 22,600 miles, 51 x 51 arcseconds), while the second one covers an area of 19,000 x 10,700 km (11,800 x 6,700 miles or 27 x 15 arcseconds).

The diameter of the Earth is about 18,000 km, so the first “video” covers a square area that’s about two Earth diameters on each side. The Sun, in contrast, has a diameter of about 1,400,000 km—about 38 times larger than one side of this video.


  1. Vaal
    Posted February 5, 2020 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    That is simply amazing.

    Also: For some reason I’m now craving caramel corn.

  2. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted February 5, 2020 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Oooooo – solar plasma

  3. Steve Bogdanowicz
    Posted February 5, 2020 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    If anyone needs to worship something, no need to look beyond the hydrogen atom!

  4. GBJames
    Posted February 5, 2020 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Stunning. Although I could do without the music.

  5. Posted February 5, 2020 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    The diameter of the earth is 12,742 km.

  6. Posted February 5, 2020 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Yes, this was amazing. Similar but much slower circulation patterns occur in the earth’s mantle, which then drives the slow recycling of the crust. Also our atmosphere does this only much more quickly.

  7. Posted February 5, 2020 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Nothing short of astounding, glad I got the opportunity to see our energy supply close up, it does look a little like honeycomb.
    I think I did a neutrino shudder looking at it. 😜

  8. Michael Fisher
    Posted February 5, 2020 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    The movies are indeed constructed from time-lapse digital still images – the fastest shown [45 seconds in] is around 180 times normal speed.

    The construction of each digital still is complicated – a burst of images are recorded at 30 fps through a tight colour filter & analysed to form single sharpened image [speckle-reconstruction]. This is done to minimise the effect of ‘astronomical seeing’ – “the amount of apparent blurring and twinkling of astronomical objects like stars due to turbulent mixing in the atmosphere of Earth, causing variations of the optical refractive index” [Wiki]

    The DKIST has a resolution at the Sun of 20 km [12 mi] – all made possible by this speckle imaging technique DESCRIBED HERE

    • JezGrove
      Posted February 5, 2020 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

      It was YEARS before I realised that that song was by “Loose Windscreen”, having only ever heard the Manfred Mann’s Earth Band version:

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted February 5, 2020 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

        It’s track one, side one on The Boss’s first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., the one with the front flap that looked like a postcard.

        Those were the days of vinyl, Jez. Mighta been before your time.

        It’s where Bruce staked his claim as a Dylanesque lyricist. The Manfred Mann cover is a pale, bowdlerized, top-40 imitation.

        • CR
          Posted February 5, 2020 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

          Agree! Never understood why the radio stations always played the Mann version. Bruce’s was sooooo much better. Awesome album showing a fantastic new talent..

  9. Posted February 5, 2020 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    Solar porridge on a rapid boil!

    • Alexander
      Posted February 5, 2020 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

      Exactly! The same physics.

      • JezGrove
        Posted February 5, 2020 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

        We really ARE in the Goldilocks zone!

        • Alexander
          Posted February 5, 2020 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

          Yes, but the phenomenon you see in your boiling porridge and on the surface of the sun is convection. The outer layer of the sun is called the convection zone. The same physical laws describe convection in boiling water and the convection of hot gasses on the surface of the sun. The parameters are different.

  10. Mark R.
    Posted February 5, 2020 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    The sun is a mass of incandescent gas, a gigantic nuclear furnace

    Where hydrogen is built into helium at a temperature of millions of degrees
    (And magnified it looks like boiling cheese.)

    Yo ho it’s hot, the sun is not a place where we could live

    But here on earth there’d be no life without the light it gives…

    I know the tune could be tweaked better by this new look at the sun’s surface, but I lack the energy; I haven’t seen the sun for a few days.

    • darrelle
      Posted February 6, 2020 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      Not bad at all Mark!

  11. Posted February 5, 2020 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    Anyone know why some of the crevices between cells are bright, whereas most are dark?

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted February 5, 2020 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

      The crevices between the cells are ‘dark’ [relatively speaking] where there isn’t plasma rising above the surface. Where the crevices appear to be light is because very hot plasma is spewing upwards above the crevices – riding the electro-magnetic loops.

      I assume the plasma that’s in free ‘flight’ & riding emanates from between the cells. A guess.

  12. Posted February 6, 2020 at 12:08 am | Permalink

    You know that these images are in ultraviolet, right?

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted February 6, 2020 at 6:00 am | Permalink

      I see you describe yourself as a science-informed philosopher Varun, so riddle me this: why would we flush money down the toilet putting a UV telescope inside Earth’s atmosphere? Even up a mountain, that’s not a smart move. Visible light is wavelength 380 nm [the blue end] to 740 nm [the red end] & UV telescopes are space-based or on very high altitude balloons these days.

      The released time-lapse videos from DKIST that I’ve seen are filtered at:
      [1] the visible light wavelength 705.839 nm dark-red.
      [2] the near-IR 789.186 nm

      In fact, of the eight filters available on the VBI [Visible Broadband Imager] only one is ‘invisible’ & that’s not at the UV [Blue end] but at the Red end 789.186 nm IR.

      • Posted February 6, 2020 at 6:18 am | Permalink

        My bad…

        I was just annoyed that the releases of the beautiful images of the Sun, used for educational purposes, weren’t accompanied by a caveat that it wouldn’t look to a person that way when viewed with naked eyes.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted February 6, 2020 at 6:42 am | Permalink

          The releases were very thorough, it was the media interpretation/presentation that was crap – many important details were filtered out. New Scientist was very, very bad on this story & the popular press [in the UK] were only marginally better.

          By-the-by: A very deep red colour palette would have been more accurate for the images, but I think the NSO chose yellow/orange to meet general expectations of what colour Sol appears to be from northern latitudes [up in Europe & N. America] Earth most of the time. The important message was the cellular plasma motion & the scales involved – a safe, expected yellow raises the least questions.

        • Posted February 7, 2020 at 11:53 am | Permalink

          Of course, trying to get this view with naked eyes would fry your retina or the like anyway, so …

          • Alexander
            Posted February 7, 2020 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

            This happened to Galileo, who looked at the Sun with his telescope.

            • Michael Fisher
              Posted February 7, 2020 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

              Urban legend. Galileo going blind because of sun-gazing with a telescope isn’t likely. He wrote about the projection method devised by a pupil & adopted it as superior to viewing through clouds or smoked glass or at sunset/sunrise – this was decades before he went completely blind in his late 60s. The symptoms of eye problems he described are not those associated with viewing the sun nor with over-use of a telescope. MORE INFO HERE

              • Alexander
                Posted February 8, 2020 at 12:56 am | Permalink

                Indeed. This was something I read 40 years ago. Interesting that Galileo was aware of the dangers looking at the sun directly.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted February 6, 2020 at 6:10 am | Permalink

      Info from DKIST WIKI & the NSO SITE [National Solar Observatory]

      VBI blue channel [45″ field of view]

      393.327 nm dark-violet
      430.520 nm violet
      450.287 nm blue continuum
      486.139 nm turquoise

      VBI red channel [69″ field of view]

      656.282 nm light-red
      668.423 nm red continuum
      705.839 nm dark-red
      789.186 nm near Infra Red

  13. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted February 7, 2020 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Jerry & all the rest, very illuminating [sic!]!

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