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Best sun pictures ever show new solar features

By Richard Stenger

The new Swedish solar telescope in the Canary Islands documented previously unknown sunspot traits.
The new Swedish solar telescope in the Canary Islands documented previously unknown sunspot traits.

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(CNN) -- Resembling the work of Vincent Van Gogh, the most detailed images of the sun ever exhibit masterful golden swirls and bizarre dark clouds.

The pictures were taken by a new Swedish telescope on the Canary Island of La Palma, one of the best places on Earth to view the sun.

The Atlantic Ocean observatory documented previously unknown features: thin, dark cores within the bright filaments that encircle sunspots, which are intense magnetic storms that erupt like dark blemishes on the solar surface.

"The new structures we see may be the building blocks of the solar magnetic activity," said Dan Kiselman, co-author of a report in the November 14 issue of the journal Nature.

The Swedish physicist cautioned that researchers would require more time and data to understand the phenomena.

"We are starting to hear from theorists who are beginning to think over this, but it is too early to say now in which way they will head," he said.

Kiselman and colleagues plan more observations with the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences telescope, which boasts an ideal blend of geography and technology to watch the sun.

La Palma offers one of the best locations to conduct ground-based solar studies, said Goran Scharmer, lead author of the Nature report. The telescope, situated above the cloud cover atop an extinct volcano on a small, remote island, experiences minimal atmospheric distortion.

Sun watching from Earth and space

Moreover, the observatory boasts a 1-meter adaptive mirror that can change its shape 1,000 times a second to compensate for whatever atmospheric blurring there might be.

And cameras can snap images with resolutions up to 1,200 times better than normal human eyesight.

"To compare, it would be similar to read the lowest line on the character chart at the eye doctor from a distance of three kilometers (two miles)," said Paal Brekke, a scientist with the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO).

The SOHO satellite has closely monitored the sun and solar weather with an array of instruments and cameras since its launch in 1995. Yet the pre-eminent sun-watching satellite cannot match the resolution power of the Swedish telescope.

"This is due to the fact that the telescope at La Palma has a much bigger mirror. It is far too expensive to bring such large mirrors out into space," Brekke said.

Yet by flying high above the planet, SOHO has advantages over its ground-based counterpart. It avoids all image blurring and can see ultraviolet light from the sun, which the atmosphere absorbs.

So La Palma and SOHO complement each other rather than compete, according to solar scientists.

"By looking at the sun at different wavelengths, we can peel off the different layers in the (solar) atmosphere, just like peeling an onion," Brekke said.

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