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New Technology Produces Images of Sunspots Unlike Anything Scientists Have Seen Before

Aug 07, 2013 03:46 PM EDT
Image Taken by New Solar Telescope at BBSO
This image was taken with the visible imaging spectrometer on May 22, 2013 in H-alpha line center by the New Solar Telescope (NST) at Big Bear Solar Observatory (BBSO), CA. The lawn-shaped pattern shows ultrafine magnetic loops rooted on the photosphere. The telescope is currently being upgraded to include the only solar multi-conjugate adaptive optics system to correct atmospheric distortion over a wide field of view, as well as the only fully cryogenic solar spectrograph for probing the Sun in the near infrared.
(Photo : BBSO)

Through the help of a new-generation visible imaging spectrometer (VIS), researchers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology's Big Bear Solar Observatory (BBSO) in California are now able to capture images of sunspots in never-before-seen detail, revealing new insights into the phenomena and space weather in general.

According to Wenda Cao, NJIT associate professor of physics and BBSO associate director, the new technology means "the solar atmosphere from the photosphere to the chromosphere, can be monitored in near real time."

Among the most recent photographs taken is the most precise sunspot image ever obtained, BBSO officials report. The meticulous detail reveals twisting flows along the penumbra's (the lighter region of a sunspot) brighter filaments as well as the dynamic motion in the light bridge that spans the umbra's (the sunspot's darker region) darkest part.

The project to build the world's most capable solar telescope was led by Philip R. Goode, a Fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Geophysical Union. It was completed in 2009 and is currently being upgraded to include the world's only solar multi-conjugate adaptive optics system with the goal of fully correcting atmospheric distortion over a wide field of view.

Further updates also include the only fully cryogenic solar spectrograph for probing the Sun in near infrared.

The announcement of the new technology comes as both the government and scientists have increased their attention in regards to space weather and the threat it poses.

In June, NASA Chief Charles Bolden spoke at this year's Space Weather Enterprise Forum saying that space weather events can be "just as punishing as a tornado."

A severe solar storm, for example, has the potential to take down telecommunications and power grids, NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco said in 2011.

"We have every reason to expect we're going to be seeing more space weather in the coming years, and it behooves us to be smart and be prepared," Lubchenco warned, according to, adding that it's not it's "not a matter of if, it's simply a matter of when and how big."

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