NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, has taken its first picture of our sun. The telescope was actually designed for objects much further away than our sun such as black holes. But, it does a pretty good job when focused on something closer to home.
This first image gives scientists the most sensitive look yet at the sun in high-energy X-rays.
“NuSTAR will give us a unique look at the sun, from the deepest to the highest parts of its atmosphere,” said David Smith, a solar physicist and member of the NuSTAR.
Smith encouraged the use of NuSTAR on our sun nearly seven years ago, before the telescope was even ready to go. Smith convinced the principal investigator, Fiona Harrison, that NuSTAR could see X-ray flashes from the sun that have been theorized.
NuSTAR is able to peek at the sun without damaging its instruments. The sun’s incredible brightness makes this impossible for other telescopes such as NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.
The first image of the sun shows NuSTAR can observe the sun and gather data. Additional observations of the sun will come as the sun’s solar cycle slows. “We will come into our own when the sun gets quiet,” explains Smith.
Solar activity on the sun is expected to dip over the next couple years.
NuSTAR Could Explain the “Coronal Heating Problem”
The sun is one of the most studied objects in our solar system, yet it still holds mysteries. One of them is known as the “coronal heating problem.” The sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona, is about 1.8 million degrees fahrenheit on average. The sun’s surface is downright chilly in comparison, just 10,800 degrees fahrenheit.
Scientists believe theorized nanoflares, smaller versions of regular solar flares, could explain why the corona is so hot. And, that’s where NuSTAR comes in.
“NuSTAR will be exquisitely sensitive to the faintest X-ray activity happening in the solar atmosphere, and that includes possible nanoflares,” said Smith.
NuSTAR will also be on the hunt for dark matter. But, scientists admit it’s a long shot. Specifically, NuSTAR will be on the lookout for axions. They will appear as a spot of X-rays in the center of the sun, if they exist at all.
For now, NuSTAR is back to observing black holes, supernovas and whatever else awaits in deep space.