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Fine threads of million-degree plasma revealed in sharpest-ever images of sun

Images captured by NASA's Hi-C space telescope revealed the presence of super heated plasma threads snaking through the sun's outer atmosphere. Photo by University of Central Lancashire
Images captured by NASA's Hi-C space telescope revealed the presence of super heated plasma threads snaking through the sun's outer atmosphere. Photo by University of Central Lancashire

April 9 (UPI) -- The sharpest-ever photos of the sun, captured by NASA's High-Resolution Coronal Imager, Hi-C, have revealed the fine magnetic threads of super heated plasma that make up the sun's outer layer.

The new images were processed by a team of scientists from the University of Central Lancashire, in Britain, and NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

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Data collected by Hi-C and analyzed by the international team of researchers could offer fresh insights into the behavior of the sun's magnetized atmosphere.

Until now, much of the sun's atmosphere was a dark blur. But Hi-C's imaging abilities allow the space telescope to pick up solar features as small as 40 miles.

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The latest images -- captured in 2018 and detailed this week in the Astrophysical Journal -- revealed dense swirls of strands, each measuring more than 300 miles across. Hot electrified gases pump through each of the strands.

The mechanisms that produce and sustain these super heated plasma threads aren't yet understood. But it's hard to study things that can't be seen, and scientists expect the images collected by Hi-C will help them understand how these super heated strands influence the eruption of solar flares, solar storms and other solar phenomena.

"Until now solar astronomers have effectively been viewing our closest star in 'standard definition,' whereas the exceptional quality of the data provided by the Hi-C telescope allows us to survey a patch of the Sun in 'ultra-high definition' for the first time," Robert Walsh, professor of solar physics at UCLan, said in a news release.

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"Think of it like this: if you are watching a football match on television in standard definition, the football pitch looks green and uniform," Walsh said. "Watch the same game in ultra-HD and the individual blades of grass can jump out at you -- and that's what we're able to see with the Hi-C images. We are catching sight of the constituent parts that make up the atmosphere of the star."

Researchers at NASA, the European Space Agency and UCLan are now working on plans to launch Hi-C once more.

"These new Hi-C images give us a remarkable insight into the Sun's atmosphere," said Amy Winebarger, Hi-C principal investigator at NASA MSFC. "Along with ongoing missions such as Probe and SolO, this fleet of space-based instruments in the near future will reveal the Sun's dynamic outer layer in a completely new light."

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