In Brief
  • Scientists used a device called multi-conjugate adaptive optics, which captures light from different altitudes on Earth’s atmosphere, to see a real-time view of solar activity.
  • This not only marks the very first time that solar storms were observed in real time by scientists, it also gives us an opportunity to learn more about how solar storms work.

Multi-Conjugate Adaptive Optics

For the first time, scientists were able to get real-time images of the Sun using the world’s highest resolution telescope in Big Bear Solar Observatory (BBSO) in California.

The images, gathered after the telescope was given a critical upgrade, gave researchers the opportunity to view solar activity in real time. A macro view is critical when it comes to observing and understanding solar storms because large flares occur across various points and nearly all at the same time.

According to Philip Goode, a research professor of physics from the New Jersey Institute of Technology:

To understand the fundamental dynamics of the Sun, such as the origin of solar storms, we need to collect data from as wide a field of view as possible. During large flares, for example, magnetic field changes appear to occur at many different places with near simultaneity. Only by seeing the comprehensive array of eruptions all at once will we be able to accurately […] analyze the forces that propel the star’s magnetic fields to twist around each other until they explode, spewing massive amounts of radiation and particles that, when directed earthward, can cause disruptive space weather.

The team used a device called multi-conjugate adaptive optics (MCAO), which captures light from different altitudes on Earth’s atmosphere via three mirrors, guided by cameras capturing images at two thousand frames per second. To accommodate the Earth’s atmospheric light distortions, the mirrors adjust to provide a corrected and real-time view of solar activity. The result was a view three times wider than what was possible before this upgrade.

“Over the years, we had reconfigured the mirrors scores of times, waiting for that ‘Wow!’ moment,” Finally, late last July, we saw what we had long sought – a continuous stream of sharp, wide-field corrected, but essentially identical images,” he adds.

Image Credit: NJIT

Real-Time Science

This not only marks the very first time that solar storms were observed in real time by scientists, it also gives us an opportunity to learn more about how solar storms work. Solar storms are large explosions that take place in the Sun’s atmosphere. Once the radiation and particles from the storm interact with Earth’s magnetic field, they can cause a geomagnetic storm that can wreak havoc on critical technologies.

A world like ours, where everything runs on electricity and is dependent on the reliability of our telecommunications systems, is particularly vulnerable to geomagnetic storms, as they could kill the Earth’s power grid and shut down telecommunication systems for years.

Having the ability to observe the solar flares simultaneously thus gives scientists the chance to “accurately measure the size, strength, and sequencing of these magnetic events,” says Goode.