These Images Show the Sun’s Surface in Greater Detail Than Ever Before

A new telescope in Hawaii takes aim at our nearest star and its mysteries.

Comments: 73

  1. Wow what a wonderment! The only star that harbors life as we know it. And the ultimate source of our fossil, solar, wind and water energy. Still full of mysteries and an extraordinary super star from our human context and perspective.

  2. @Blackmamba Ah, "as we know it" is key to this otherwise unexceptional star, though I'm sure glad it's there.

  3. Can someone please make this into a screensaver?

  4. Amazing and Awe inspiring! Kudos to the new Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope ! We are certain to discover many previously unknown facts and processes that drive our life - giving Sun!

  5. wow amazing! We are too busy here with Trump!!! We take the sun, the essential for all life and death, for granted. It hangs up there a disc so strong, we cannot even look at it for long. The ancients made it a god, the ruler of all life..

  6. In spite of all the craziness and political perils of our times, I am grateful to live in an era of scientific advances that capable of giving us such insight into the awe-inspiring magnificence of our solar system and universe.

  7. It's a shame that the telescope could not have been named for El Onizuka, the Hawaiian astronaut lost on the Challenger. He was a great guy and a true hero.

  8. @mtrescueguy While Onizuka was indeed a good man, so was Inouye. Look at the Onizuka wiki page under legacy and note he's well honored.

  9. Daniel Inouye as a sergeant in the US Army during WWII, was part of the expeditionary force that relieved the Lost Battalion which was surrounded by Nazi forces during the Battle of the Bulge; lost an arm during the Italian Campaign toward the end of the War and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. He later was elected as the first Congressman from the newly admitted State of Hawaii, and was in fact the first Asian-American Congressman ever elected... Inouye BTW also served, in 1972, as co-Chair of the House Investigative Committee during the Impeachment of Richard Nixon whose actions which helped force the resignation of one of the most corrupt Administrations in American History. He was, posthumously, awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Not a true Hero?

  10. @birddog I could not agree more. Inouye watched his Japanese-American troops suffer terrible losses as they tried to take a hill from entrenched German soldiers. Wounded several times, he recalled an insane fury that made him charge the Germans, his struggling men following the badly-bleeding Inouye. They won that awful battle and freed the all-white Texans. They lost more men than they rescued, and why they were sent on a suicidal mission bothered Inouye's comrades, who wondered why that happened to th all-Japanese-American unit. I think no one expected them to free the Texans or live to fight on afterward. His unit became the most decorated one in WWII. When its racist commander ordered the unit to accept ts unit citation, barely a fifth showed up. Angrily, he demanded to know where the rest of the group was. He was told, "Sir, this is the entire unit." Truman later desegregated the armed services and still later the anti-Japanese legislation of WWII was repudiated. American history benefits from letting the sun shine in. Inouye's suffering and courage earned him a place of blessed memory. (N.b., the Medal of Honor" has no "Congressional" in its title.)

  11. I sincerely hope continued sun (and space) research like this unlocks some much-needed leaps in technology for energy creating. Imagine if, after studying the sun in such new and unprecedented ways, we create a new solar panel that captures 10x what our current panels do. Or through space travel we discover a new means of propulsion that antiquates gasoline-driven cars. Space-driven tech has changed the world many times (from cell phones to velcro), I'd love to see it happen again with energy technology.

  12. @Chris. Not cellphones, not Velcro (tm). You’re not alone in attributing all sorts of things to space science, but the evolution of microelectronics had plenty of drivers and was steady and inevitable, although partly funded by military objectives, and in fact, even though satellite communications facilitate things, your phone can’t talk to anything in orbit, and doesn’t. Velcro, although helpful for thick-gloved astronauts, originated in 1941 and even then, was intended for use on clothing. There are better examples; understanding global climate and the incredible recent cosmological understanding, and more to come unless we run out of time and money. To working scientists, like me, the hype and expenditure surrounding manned space missions has, almost from the start, been not only offensive, but retarding of legitimate studies.

  13. “Every second, thermonuclear reactions in the center of the Sun turn 5 million tons of hydrogen into pure energy.” This is false. The interior of the sun is a massive FUSION reactor fusing hydrogen into helium and then down the line into heavier and heavier elements during the sun’s lifetime. Thermonuclear refers to a FISSION reaction. Fission reactions happen closer to the surface of the sun as a result of the massive amount of energy released during the fusion process.

  14. @N Again from the OED: Thermonuclear: Derived from, utilizing, or being a nuclear reaction that occurs only at very high temperatures (such as those inside stars), viz. fusion of hydrogen or other light nuclei.

  15. @N According to the dictionary, "thermonuclear" refers to fusion.

  16. @Z But does the reaction turn it into pure energy, or does it create helium plus released energy?

  17. Most people like the fire when staring at a campfire. I like to watch the heat move on the logs/embers that aren't actually burning. Quite hypnotic.

  18. @Chris I'll see your hypnotic and raise you a therapeutic.

  19. @Chris My friends and I call it "Caveman TV".

  20. ". . . creatures of Earth eke out a living on the edge of almost incomprehensible violence." When are popular science writers going to stop referring to natural events, such as stellar events, earthquakes, and weather, as being violent acts? It is erroneous to project human characteristics onto physical events. They may be intense, even destructive, but not violent. Humans are violent, not physics and chemistry.

  21. @Robert Marvos Violence is not exclusive to humans. you just decided it was.

  22. @Robert Marvos Perhaps when the English language changes. The word violence has accepted definitions that are not limited to human actions or intent. The OED's third definition of violence is as follows: "Force or strength of physical action or natural agents; forcible, powerful, or violent action or motion (in early use freq. connoting destructive force or capacity)."

  23. @Robert Marvos Humans experience it as violence.

  24. These look like the famous dissipative structures as described by Prigogine et al a long time ago. Presumably the same.

  25. The statement "5 million tons of hydrogen into pure energy" is slightly misleading (other than that it's closer to 4 million tons). What it should say is that "4 million tons of mass into pure energy", requiring turning roughly 60 million tons of hydrogen into helium per second. And only about 10% of the Sun's hydrogen can be so converted before its structure changes so much that it turns into a red giant and relatively soon thereafter into a white dwarf. But don' worry, that won't happen for some 4 billion years, though by 1 billion years the Sun's energy output will have slowly increased enough to make the Earth uninhabitable.

  26. Global warming may make the Earth uninhabitable way before 1 Billion years.

  27. Fine writing for a wondrous event: those meshing kernals of incomprehensible heat--absolutely enthralling. Thank you. The image and your words brought to life a photo I have of the solar disk, taken at the McMath-Pierce solar telescope on Kitt Peak, long ago. What a great planet we live on.

  28. I've always been fascinated by the Sun. Great piece and what a great achievement.

  29. Who exactly had such a notion, "belying the notion of a bland yellow orb"? Certainly not anybody who received a basic science-based education. But they are great pictures.

  30. The photo was wondrous and I adored the article's size reference to each kernel being the size of Texas. I also enjoyed reading the comments that took issue with the description of how the sun's inner core radiates energy outward. When I feel the warmth of "our" sun, and imagine kernels the size of Texas, it brings tears to my eyes. Our tiny place -in the vastness of space - is a wonderful mystery. I am grateful the Hawaiians eventually allowed the telescope to be placed on their sacred lands. Thank you NYT for publishing the photo and enabling the commentary.

  31. Beautiful, hypnotic piece of video. Allowed me to forget the problems of this world for a few seconds and contemplate the great mystery we live in. It appears this is a time lapse - 10 minutes sped up to about 6 seconds? Is that correct?

  32. @Richard Correct. It should have been mentioned in the article.

  33. Too bad all that solar heat the telescope collects has to be wasted. Some kind of co-generation or use in making electrical power would seem like a no-brainer.

  34. @Zandru. Only 13kW- or less than most home roofs, and it doesn’t ‘collect’ it, since it has has to have a rather massive cooling system to keep it from collecting it.

  35. But if the earth is flat and the sun is fake, how can this be real? Kidding! Amazing!

  36. It looks like carmelcorn! Nature’s mysteries revealed....

  37. Just think. If we can get rid of this yellow orb, our global warming problems will go away.

  38. Brilliant -- the Sun, the Inouye telescope, NASA's Solar Probe, and Mr. Overbye's writing. Best of luck to the Solar Orbiter launch next week.

  39. This image is super impressive! I've never seen anything like it. As I looked at the boiling cauldron, I was reminded of a problem they gave us in college physics class: How long does it take a photon of light to get out from the inside of the Sun? According to NASA, photons of light take "about 4000 years" to travel the distance of the radius of the sun. And: "These estimates show that the emission of light at the surface can lag the production of light at the core by up to 1 million years." Cite: Odenwald, Dr. Sten. Ask the Space Scientist. NASA, from:

  40. Good you brought that old saw up, but it’s really a semantic thing. A photon isn’t wending its way out of the sun after zillions of collisions; it’s being absorbed and re-emitted as a different photon all the time, so, originally a gamma ray, it’s eventually visible light. A zillionish (pick your model of mean free path and emission dynamics) descendantof that photon emerges. Like saying that a Neanderthal gave birth to me. On the other hand, a neutrino coming from the core pretty much gets out after a couple of minutes (maybe), so if we had a solar neutrino detector of enough resolution, we’d have a millennium’s advance notice of the sun beginning to blow up. I suggest we build one right away.

  41. Scientists are more important than politicians. Thank you.

  42. Yes, the science here is fantastic. BUT.... "...the Inouye telescope, which was built by the National Science Foundation atop Haleakala, an ancient cratered volcano, sacred to native Hawaiians, on the island. Haleakala means “house of the sun” in Hawaiian. What better place to build the world’s biggest telescope devoted to the sun?" Please take a step back to think about how arrogant, patronizing and racist that attitude is. This place was, by your own admittance, sacred to native white people came in and built their own buildings on it, on their terms, with no regard for the people to whom this land actually belongs. Native Hawaiians were protesting and getting arrested like crazy to try to stop this thing from being built. Haleakala cannot have been the only potential site for this telescope. This scientific advance could have been done in a way that didn't disrespect and erase native Hawaiian culture. "What better place to build..."? How about LITERALLY ANYWHERE ELSE that wasn't already held as a sacred space by an already-oppressed indigenous people?

  43. No, for a number of reasons, that place was truly ideal. High up in the sky, and away from light pollution. The science from there might end up benefiting all of humanity.

  44. @David Martin And are there truly NO other places on earth that are high up in the mountains and away from light pollution? There was an alternative site for the 30m telescope on Mauna Kea that they could have used, but nooooo. I'm sure they could have found a different site for this one too. And regarding light our science and technology has made so much of the rest of the planet unsuitable for a telescope that we have to go and take EVEN MORE from vulnerable indigenous people who haven't messed up their own small corner of the world? How is THAT fair?

  45. @Sphinxfeather the building of telescopes on the volcanic mountains of Hawaii is not universally rejected by native Hawaiians. On the big island of Hawaii, which may be the demonstrations you were thinking of, the battle over the Thirty Meter Telescope (known as TMT) has involved many elders of the Hawaiian community. But there are also many who have said that King Kalakaua would have loved that telescope, and I suspect he would be totally enthralled with these images. He was a very modern thinker, loved what for him was "modern technology", and had Edison install electric lights in the Hawaiian Palace several years before they were installed in the White House. The other side of this issue that is rarely discussed is how the native Hawaiians reconcile their old beliefs, the sacredness of these places, with the modern acceptance of Christianity. Hawaii is a very religious place, but the predominant religion among those who still have some Hawaiian heritage is Christianity.

  46. Totally mesmerized for long moments. Incredible image

  47. The sun definitely does _not_ turn hydrogen into "pure energy." This is just wrong. It _fuses_ hydrogen into helium (2 hydrogen nuclei are converted to a single helium nucleus). Since a helium nucleus has a little less mass than 2 hydrogen nuclei, the reaction produces energy. But it's less than 1% of the masses involved. In other words, less than 1% of the hydrogen is converted to "pure energy."

  48. @Robert The two nuclei fuse producing energy. Pure energy. Nothing wrong with that statement. Article never said it produced 100 percent. You don't have to prove how smart you are.

  49. @cb Furthermore, I put "pure energy" in scare quotes for a reason: the term isn't much used in physics. The energy is actually released as various high energy particles, hard x-rays, gamma rays, etc. Would you say the kinetic energy of a baseball pitched at 100 mph is "pure energy"? Or is it just a measure of the work the baseball could do?

  50. @cb From the article: "Every second, thermonuclear reactions in the center of the Sun turn 5 million tons of hydrogen into pure energy." Sure sounds to me like he means what he says. And it's wrong. The sun actually fuses about 600 million tons of hydrogen per second, releasing about 3.8x10^26 joules of energy. Using E = mc^2, that's the energy equivalent of 5 million tons of _any_ matter--not just hydrogen. So it appears the author is mixing up hydrogen fusion with the standard formula for the energy equivalent of matter. I'm not trying to prove how smart I am; I'm just trying to correct an obvious error.

  51. Makes you realize how ALL of this , the sun, life on earth , etc is all a miracle. It is a shame we are doing a lot of damage to Mother Earth . You can see why the sun was worshipped like a God by ancient peoples. It's always there, makes everything on Earth possible, never let's us humans down-ever. Thanks Sun.

  52. I just held a marshmallow in front of my computer...and sure enough it toasted!

  53. @W Are you sure you're not the one that's toasted?

  54. Filmed in Mexico alongside the lunar landings?

  55. "Snap, crackle and"... groan.

  56. Certainly does put into perspective all the nonsense about impeachment.

  57. Stunning video. Remarkable. Would live to see more. But from a safe distance. Haha.

  58. Who would've thought that a ball of gas would organize itself in such an intricate way? And that earth is just the right distance away from that magnificent furnace to support life -- with just the right amount and type of atmosphere to protect its inhabitants (legged, rooted or otherwise) from lethal side-effects? I am grateful to whatever or whomever it is that arranged all of this. I'm trained in science, and I don't question the level of understanding that modern science has achieved. But seeing this photo reminds me once again of Einstein's words that "G-D does not play dice with the universe". Even randomness and probability has its laws.

  59. @ejb The fallacy of predetermination. The termite might wonder at the fortunate circumstances that placed that dead tree trunk in just the right location to support its colony.

  60. @ejb Good grief..Einstein did not believe in a creator God and certainly not a personal one. Yes, life on Earth may seem rare, but in an infinite universe, the rare happens all the time, and the reason we can see our "luck" ("divine providence"?) in how we're organized is because we're organized this way. If it weren't, you wouldn't observe it. It's like thinking Earth has the perfect climate because we can live in it, as if it were always this way.

  61. @David True dat..... A variation on Descartes.... I am because I am.

  62. Amazing. And they do look like cells – like the living cells we're made of. The sun may be a living organism not unlike us organisms here on Earth.

  63. The fool says in his heart there is no God....Psalm 14:1

  64. Mr. Overbye, please note that "the island" where Haleakala houses the Inouye Telescope is Maui.

  65. Love it. Does anyone know the scale of the photo? Preferably Earth diameter units :-)

  66. Image is absolutely impressive, what about the technology of telescope , it really deserves a documentary.

  67. “Haleakala means “house of the sun” in Hawaiian. What better place to build the world’s biggest telescope devoted to the sun?” This is so tone deaf. Many native Hawaiians hate the construction of these telescopes because they’re built on sacred ground. Many others see them as an affront to Hawaiian sovereignty. I’m as awed by these stunning images as anyone, but that little bit of editorial seems like exactly the wrong way to write about the appropriateness of the location of the telescope.

  68. @Edmund Flanigan So it's alright for you to read and type your comment on a smartphone manufactured in a former river plain now damned and flooded, assembled by indigenous workers who lost their homes, but you don't want to read about the sun's science if to the West some indigenous islanders claim religion should overrule perfect conditions for science? Okay. Got it.

  69. Also, Mr. Overbye, it might be worth crediting the "astronomers" who released this image, at least in a footnote. The NYT's caption for that Dec. 12 image does credit the video to "NSO/NSF/AURA," but I wonder how many of your readers know who that is. Digging around online, I was able to find the following references: NSO = National Solar Observatory (which reportedly built and manages the Inouye Solar Telescope) NSF = National Science Foundation (which reportedly funds the telescope) AURA = Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (which reportedly operates the telescope) It seems that the individuals involved at these organizations might deserve some credit for their work. Some credit also seems due to the taxpayers who fund their jobs. (And no, I don't know any of those individuals, nor do I work for or with any of those organizations. But I do think that, in the end, it's individual people who can make a difference in our world.) In any case, thank you for reporting some of the information that was provided in the NSO/NSF/AURA news release. It is indeed newsworthy.

  70. What better place to build this telescope? How about somewhere that respects the wishes of native tribes Dennis?

  71. I now understand why some people worship the sun.

  72. Thanks for this amazing image. I wonder if Kamehameha might not have appreciated the telescopes...

  73. "They look like molten cheese curds," said my wife. I said "Where's the french fries and gravy? Time for poutine du soleil!"