The clearest and most detailed images of the Sun have been captured as part of a project involving Queen's University Belfast (QUB).
Images of the star were captured by the world's largest telescope with images and videos released from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Co Antrim scientist Dr Eamon Scullion, currently based at Northumbria University, was one of eight European members of the Inouye Solar Telescope Science Working Group involved in the project.
The images reveal unprecedented detail of the Sun’s surface, with experts saying it will enable a new era of solar science and a leap forward in understanding the Sun and its impacts planet Earth.
Images from NSF’s Inouye Solar Telescope 4-meter solar telescope, which sits near the summit of Haleakalā volcano in Hawaiʻi, show a close-up view of the Sun’s surface including a pattern of turbulent “boiling” plasma that covers the entire Sun.
They also show cell-like structures - each about the size of Texas - which are the signature of violent motions that transport heat from inside the Sun to its surface.
Dr Scullion said the images were an exciting first step towards understanding the physics taking place within the Sun’s surface.
“Seeing is believing. We can simulate solar activity and make predictions using data and computers, but this is the first time we have been able to see high resolution images of the activity taking place on the surface of the Sun," the former QUB student said.
"For the team here at Northumbria the real excitement will come in a few months’ time. Once we have a series of images taken over several weeks and months, we can use the software we have developed to track the changes taking place on the Sun’s surface. This will really allow us to look at the Sun in ways we simply haven’t been able to before now.”
Professor Mihalis Mathioudakis from QUB, who led the UK consortium, said the imaging produced opens new horizons in solar physics.
"Its imaging capability allows us to study the physical processes at work in the Sun’s atmosphere at unprecedented levels of detail. We worked hard over the past few years with Belfast-based Andor Technology to develop the cameras that equip the Inouye Solar Telescope and it is highly rewarding to now see this fascinating imaging,” he said.
Activity on the Sun, known as space weather, can affect systems on Earth. Magnetic eruptions on the Sun can impact air travel, disrupt satellite communications and bring down power grids, causing long-lasting blackouts and disabling technologies such as GPS.
The Inouye Solar Telescope can measure and characterise the Sun’s magnetic field in more detail than ever seen before and determine the causes of potentially harmful solar activity.
Better understanding the origins of potential disasters will enable governments and utilities to better prepare for inevitable future space weather events.
It is expected that notification of potential impacts could occur earlier - as much as 48 hours ahead of time instead of the current standard, which is about 48 minutes. This would allow for more time to secure power grids and critical infrastructure and to put satellites into safe mode.
The images were taken with cameras developed and supplied to the project by a UK consortium which is led by QUB, and involves seven other UK institutes and industry including Andor Technology, Armagh Observatory, University of Glasgow, UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory, Northumbria University, University of Sheffield, St. Andrews University and University of Warwick.