Solar Corona Revealed in Super-High-Definition
These photos of the solar corona, or million-degree outer atmosphere, show the improvement in resolution offered by NASA's
High Resolution Coronal Imager, or Hi-C (bottom), versus the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly on NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory
(top). Both images show a portion of the sun's surface roughly 85,000 by 50,000 miles in size. Hi-C launched on a sounding
rocket on July 11, 2012 in a flight that lasted about 10 minutes. The representative-color images were made from observations
of ultraviolet light at a wavelength of 19.3 nanometers (25 times shorter than the wavelength of visible light).
July 20, 2012
Cambridge, MA - Today, astronomers are releasing the highest-resolution images ever taken of the Sun's corona,
or million-degree outer atmosphere, in an extreme-ultraviolet wavelength of light. The 16-megapixel images were captured by NASA's
High Resolution Coronal Imager, or Hi-C, which was launched on a sounding rocket on July 11th. The Hi-C telescope provides five
times more detail than the next-best observations by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory.
"Even though this mission was only a few minutes long, it marks a big breakthrough in coronal studies,"
said Smithsonian astronomer Leon Golub (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), one of the lead investigators on the mission.
Understanding the Sun's activity and its effects on Earth's environment was the critical scientific objective of Hi-C,
which provided unprecedented views of the dynamic activity and structure in the solar atmosphere.
The corona surrounds the visible surface of the Sun. It's filled with million-degree ionized gas, or plasma, so hot that
the light it emits is mainly at X-ray and extreme-ultraviolet wavelengths. For decades, solar scientists have been trying
to understand why the corona is so hot, and why it erupts in violent solar flares and related blasts known as "coronal mass
ejections," which can produce harmful effects when they hit Earth. The Hi-C telescope was designed and built to see the extremely
fine structures thought to be responsible for the Sun's dynamic behavior.
"The phrase 'think globally, act locally' applies to the Sun too. Things happening at a small, local scale can impact
the entire Sun and result in an eruption," explained Golub.
Hi-C focused on an active region on the Sun near sunspot NOAA 1520. The target, which was finalized on launch day,
was selected specifically for its large size and active nature. The resulting high-resolution snapshots, at a wavelength
of 19.3 nanometers (25 times shorter than the wavelength of visible light), reveal tangled magnetic fields channeling the
solar plasma into a range of complex structures.
"We have an exceptional instrument and launched at the right time," said Jonathan Cirtain, senior heliophysicist at NASA's
Marshall Space Flight Center. "Because of the intense solar activity we're seeing right now, we were able to clearly focus
on a sizeable, active sunspot and achieve our imaging goals."
Since Hi-C rode on a suborbital rocket, its flight lasted for just 10 minutes. Of that time, only about 330 seconds were
spent taking data. Yet those images contain a wealth of information that astronomers will analyze for months to come.
"The Hi-C flight might be the most productive five minutes I've ever spent," Golub smiled.
The high-resolution images were made possible because of a set of innovations on Hi-C's telescope, which directs light
to the camera detector. The telescope includes some of the finest mirrors ever made for a space mission. Initially developed
at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., the mirrors were completed with inputs from partners at the
Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) in Cambridge, Mass., and a new manufacturing technique developed in coordination
with L-3Com/Tinsley Laboratories of Richmond, Calif. The mirrors were made to reflect extreme-ultraviolet light from the Sun
by Reflective X-ray Optics LLC of New York, NY, and the telescope was assembled at the SAO labs in Cambridge, Mass.
For more information about Hi-C, visit
Key partners in the development of Hi-C include the University of Alabama in Huntsville; the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory;
Lockheed Martin's Solar Astrophysical Laboratory in Palo Alto, Calif.; the University of Central Lancashire in Lancashire, England;
and the Lebedev Physical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.
Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between
the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists, organized into six research
divisions, study the origin, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.