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08 November 2011

The Sun--Up Close and Personal

Earth: Earth is slightly smaller than this sunspot.Credit: Wenda Cao, New Jersey Institute of Technology
The 1.6-meter aperture New Solar Telescope (NST) at Big Bear Solar Observatory (BBSO), has captured the highest resolution image of the surface of the sun ever obtained in visible light. The image was acquired with adaptive optics.

Crisp, close-ups of the sun give researchers a better idea of how its features develop and evolve. Because some of these features such as sunspots impact the earth, imagery will give researchers more data to model and predict how the sun's activity could affect the planet.

Sunspots arise from magnetic fields on the sun and hold an important key to understanding space weather. Space weather, which originates in the sun, can have dire effects on Earth's climate and environment. A bad storm can disrupt power grids and communication, destroy satellites and even expose airline pilots, crew and passengers to radiation.

To capture the images, the NST's 97-actuator deformable mirror corrected for atmospheric distortion. Each actuator acts as a piston, moving its section of the mirror to improve resolution of an image. With funding from NSF's Major Research Instrumentation program, the BBSO, which is owned by the New Jersey Institute of Technology and under the direction of Philip Goode, is upgrading the mirror to a 349-actuator deformable mirror.

The new grant will allow Goode and partners from the National Solar Observatory (NSO) to develop a new and more sophisticated kind of adaptive optics, known as multi-conjugate adaptive optics (MCAO). The new optical system lets researchers increase the distortion-free field of view, allowing better ways to study these larger and puzzling areas of the sun.

- Research.Gov