scorecardCreepy close-up images of the sun reveal yarn-like strands, dark pores, and a 'light bridge' crossing a decaying sunspot
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Creepy close-up images of the sun reveal yarn-like strands, dark pores, and a 'light bridge' crossing a decaying sunspot

Morgan McFall-Johnsen   

Creepy close-up images of the sun reveal yarn-like strands, dark pores, and a 'light bridge' crossing a decaying sunspot
LifeScience4 min read

The sun looks surprisingly stringy and porous in a series of new images from the world's most powerful solar telescope. It's almost creepy.

The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope has been observing the sun from the Hawaiian island of Maui since it first opened in 2020. That year, the observatory captured the most high-resolution images ever taken of the sun, showing its surface in unprecedented detail.

Its first video, below, showed roiling solar plasma, each cell the size of Texas. But that was just the beginning.

The National Solar Observatory (NSO) released the telescope's latest images on Friday, and they show a whole new side of the sun.

Close-up images of dying sunspots

For instance, maybe you've seen a sunspot from a distance, like in the image below.

But up close, with the Inouye telescope, sunspots look like a hellish abyss with a thick border of firey tendrils.

Sunspots are regions of the solar surface where the magnetic field is so strong it essentially chokes the solar atmosphere, making the region cooler and appear darker than its surroundings.

A sunspot isn't really a hole, but it sure looks like one. That dark, gaping maw at the center of the sunspot is called the "umbra" — the shadow — and the surrounding stringy structures are the "penumbra."

Sunspots are constantly forming, evolving, and dying on the sun.

Therefore, "one never can observe the exact same sunspot again. Every sunspot as such is a little bit different also depending on the 'age' or 'evolutionary phase' the sunspot is in," Alexandra Tritschler, a senior scientist at the NSO, told Insider in an email.

The Inouye telescope hasn't even reached its full capabilities yet. It's still in a transition phase as it builds up to full operations, according to the NSO press release. But it can already capture enough detail to show that the sunspot in the above image is probably dying.

Zooming in on the above image, the telescope reveals that the dark spots next to the large sunspot have no penumbra — indicating that they are fragments of the larger spot's umbra. That means the sunspot is breaking up, and probably coming to an end.

Observations like this could be helpful for forecasting space weather. Sunspots can trigger explosive outbursts or floods of magnetic fields and electrically charged particles, which can wreak magnetic havoc on Earth. That can sometimes cause radio blackouts, fry power grids, confuse GPS, and deorbit satellites.

Another Inouye image captured the early signature of a decaying sunspot: a "light bridge." That's the lane of bright material — higher-temperature plasma — cutting across the sunspot below. It's likely to break up the umbra into fragments.

Dark thin threads and almost-sunspots

Then there are almost-sunspots. These are little dark spots in the sun's surface where magnetic fields are concentrated, but not strong enough to gain the tendrils of a penumbra. These are called pores.

"Pores are essentially sunspots that have not had or will never have a penumbra," NSO wrote in its release.

The below images show some of those pores, alongside another phenomenon: dark, thin threads of plasma in the sun's lower atmosphere. Those "fibrils" are probably generated by the pores on the surface below.

Let's take another look at those fibrils in the solar atmosphere. They hint at the networks of magnetic fields below.

Up close, they almost make the sun look like a painting.

Quiet regions of the sun

The less active, or "quiet," parts of the sun look like the below image. Hot plasma rises from deep below and forms these kernel-like bubbles at the surface.

As that bubbling plasma cools, its density decreases, causing it to fall back below the surface, through the dark lanes between cells.

These images are just a "small fraction" of the data from Inouye's first observing cycle, according to NSO. Scientists think Inouye's observations will help them understand the sun's magnetic fields and the drivers of eruptions that cause solar storms on Earth.

The telescope will also continue to beam back stunning imagery of our star.

"Bringing the telescope to its full potential, we expect the coming years to be very exciting," Tritschler said.