Solar Corona Captured In Highest Resolution Ever
July 21, 2012

Solar Corona Captured In Highest Resolution Ever

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redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

A telescope launched on board a NASA sounding rocket earlier this month has captured the highest-resolution images of the sun's corona, the US space agency announced on Friday.

The 16-megapixel images of the million-degree atmosphere of the sun were captured in an extreme-ultraviolet wavelength of light by the High Resolution Coronal Images (Hi-C) telescope, according to the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). The Hi-C was launched into space onboard a 58-foot-tall sounding rocket from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico on July 11.

NASA says that the images taken by the 464-pound, 10-foot-long telescope provide five times more detail than the previous best observations. They also believe that those pictures could be the key scientists need to achieve improved understanding of the behavior of the solar atmosphere.

The Hi-C's flight lasted just over 10 minutes, but during that time it managed to take 165 photographs (one approximately every five seconds) of a large, active region on the sun, with some of them revealing the dynamic structure of the corona in fine detail. Those images were taken in the extreme ultraviolet wavelength, which makes it optimal for viewing the solar atmosphere.

"These revolutionary images of the sun demonstrate the key aspects of NASA's sounding rocket program, namely the training of the next generation of principal investigators, the development of new space technologies, and scientific advancements," Barbara Giles, director of the NASA Heliophysics Division at the organization's Washington-based headquarters, said in a statement.

"Even though this mission was only a few minutes long, it marks a big breakthrough in coronal studies," added Leon Golub, a Smithsonian astronomer and one of the mission's lead investigators.

The Hi-C is approximately five times more detailed than the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) instrument flying aboard NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), the American space administration explained. The AIA can reportedly see structures on the sun's surface with the clarity of approximately 675 miles and observes the sun in 10 wavelengths of light, while the Hi-C improves those numbers to about 135 miles and just one wavelength of light.

"Understanding the Sun's activity and its effects on Earth's environment was the critical scientific objective of Hi-C, which provided unprecedented views of the dynamic activity and structure in the solar atmosphere," the CFA noted in their press release. “The corona surrounds the visible surface of the Sun. It's filled with million-degree ionized gas, or plasma, so hot that the light it emits is mainly at X-ray and extreme-ultraviolet wavelengths."

"For decades, solar scientists have been trying to understand why the corona is so hot, and why it erupts in violent solar flares and related blasts known as 'coronal mass ejections,' which can produce harmful effects when they hit Earth," they added. "The Hi-C telescope was designed and built to see the extremely fine structures thought to be responsible for the Sun's dynamic behavior."

The high-resolution of the images was made possible because of several innovations to the telescope's optics array. The 9 1/2 inch mirrors, which were developed at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, are said to be some of the finest ever crafted for space-based instrumentation. They were crafted using a new manufacturing technique and the improvement over past optics arrays was described by NASA as " similar to making the transition in television viewing from a cathode ray tube TV to high definition TV."