Backyard Observatory

A NASA Rocket Captured the Highest-Ever Resolution Photos of the Sun's Surface

It's like switching from standard definition to ultra-HD.

photo of sun's surface
University of Central Lancashire/NASA

There's arguably no space object more familiar than the sun. Yet, so much about it remains a mystery. The Parker Solar Probe is working to unravel some of the mystery as it gets ready for another pass by the star. But newly released images taken by NASA’s High Resolution Coronal Imager (Hi-C) have revealed the highest-ever resolution details of the sun to date.

The images show "fine magnetic thread" filled with balmy million-degree plasma on the outer layer of the sun, as noted in a new paper published in The Astrophysical Journal. Researchers at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN), NASA, and other organizations are studying the details to better understand the sun's intricate and mysterious magnetic field.

photo of sun's surface
University of Central Lancashire/NASA

Hi-C isn't a probe like the Parker, but a suborbital-flight rocket. It's briefly launched into the air and can zoom in on incredibly small regions of the sun. What can be seen in the images is delicate lines tracing the sun's magnetic field, weaving across its atmosphere. Each of those fine lines is around 310 miles across, according to the paper.

"Until now solar astronomers have effectively been viewing our closest star in 'standard definition,' whereas the exceptional quality of the data provided by the Hi-C telescope allows us to survey a patch of the Sun in 'ultra-high definition' for the first time," professor Robert Walsh, astrophysicist at UCLAN and institutional lead for the Hi-C team, said in the university's announcement. That "ultra-high definition" view is revealing parts of the sun never before seen.

photos of the sun high-res
University of Central Lancashire/NASA

"Think of it like this: if you are watching a football match on television in standard definition, the football pitch looks green and uniform," Walsh said. "Watch the same game in ultra-HD and the individual blades of grass can jump out at you -- and that’s what we’re able to see with the Hi-C images. We are catching sight of the constituent parts that make up the atmosphere of the star."

These threads had previously been invisible to researchers and are now, as Astronomy puts it, no longer an unknown unknown but a known unknown.

There's a lot to be learned still. Dr. Tom Williams, a postdoctoral researcher at UCLAN, said this could help to understand the flow of energy through the sun's layers and, eventually, out to our planet full of people sitting at home watching Netflix. 

Ready to go stargazing?

Here are all the best stargazing events that you can get out and see this month or you could stay in a stream the northern lights from home. 

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Dustin Nelson is a Senior Staff Writer at Thrillist. Follow him @dlukenelson.