An astrophotographer has captured a 286-megapixel image of the sun during the most intense period of solar activity in decades.
The image shows huge balls of fire rotating on the surface of the sun and can be zoomed in to see the entire fiery mass in great detail.
Andrew McCarthy, known to his online followers as @cosmic-background, took the photos through a telescope last week, taking care not to be blinded by the harsh rays.
The high-definition image is a mosaic of approximately 50 tiles, each made up of 600 superimposed photos.
The photographer has been pointing his telescope at the sun for three years and says it’s currently “the most active I’ve ever seen”.
The sun appears to be entering a particularly active period of its 11-year activity cycle, which began in 2019 and is expected to peak in 2025.
It produces solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) – powerful bursts of energy that can direct dangerous explosions towards Earth.
American astrophotographer Andrew McCarthy chose 30,000 photos to create a mosaic image that captured the sun in high definition from Florence, Arizona, USA
The image captures the dark spots, called active regions, on the surface of the sun as well as the bright sunspots that erupt from the fireball
The “fluffy” areas on the outer limb are pockets of plasma captured in the magnetic field, with lighter areas, called “filaments” distributed over the rest of the sun
Andrew said: “Seeing the full sun at this level of detail is probably not something many people have ever seen in their life.”
“During a period of increased solar activity, the sun will look like this all the time. Rather, this image is a sign that the 11-year cycle is approaching the peak part of its activity.
“Scrolling through 100,000 photos by hand was the most tedious part of the final image.
“For most of the process, I didn’t even know I would have a decent picture at the end. I was grateful when it went so well.
Andrew individually selected the 30,000 photos that make up the final image from a stack of 100,000.
The image captures the dark spots, called active regions, on the surface of the sun as well as the bright sunspots that erupt from the fireball.
WHAT ARE CORONAL MASS EJECTIONS?
Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are large clouds of plasma and magnetic field that erupt from the sun.
These clouds can burst in any direction and then continue in that direction, plowing through the solar wind.
These clouds only cause impacts on Earth when directed towards Earth.
They tend to be much slower than solar flares because they move more material.
CMEs can be triggered when a storm on the surface of the sun causes a vortex to form at the base of plasma loops projecting from the surface.
These loops are called prominences and when they become unstable they can rupture, releasing the CME into space.
The solar chromosphere, a layer in the sun’s atmosphere, can be seen as a very thin layer of hydrogen alpha light because Andrew’s telescope is fine-tuned with a 5-inch refractor.
The “fluffier” areas on the outer limb are pockets of plasma captured in the magnetic field, called prominences, with lighter areas, called filaments, distributed over the rest of the sun.
From these, sunspots, flares, and coronal mass ejections erupt, capable of frying the Earth’s surface if they got close enough.
It was processed in false color due to the filters Andrew had to use to photograph such a bright subject.
The two filters he used with his specialized telescope, in order to prevent a fire, and the photographer becoming blind.
The colors are also partially inverted – hence the sunspots appear dark – in order to visualize the prominences.
Andrew captured the masterpiece through a telescope in his garden in Florence, Arizona, USA.
“I spent about four hours capturing the sun that day, most of which was spent capturing the two-hour time lapse of the sunspots,” he said.
“Full sun was captured over a period of around 45 minutes but took several days to process.
“It was particularly windy that day, so I had to go in and manually delete the bad images where the wind had knocked my telescope down.”
The photographer shot a photo of the Earth next to the sun for scale
The sun is 864,400 miles (1,391,000 kilometers) in diameter, about 109 times the diameter of the Earth. The star is so large that approximately 1,300,000 planet Earths can fit on it.
Andrew McCarthy needed a specialized telescope with two filters, in order to avoid a fire and go blind. Filters meant colors in photos were partially inverted
In December, Andrew captured what he described as the “clearest photo of the sun”.
He superimposed 150,000 individual images of the sun to convey the stunning and intricate detail of the largest star in the solar system.
Everything can be seen in the huge 300 megapixel final image – 30 times larger than a standard 10 megapixel camera image.
Despite his actions, Andrew is keen to urge others not to look directly at the sun unless they have specialized equipment.
He said, “Don’t point a telescope at the sun unless you know what you’re doing.
“Seeing a lot of activity on the sun is always exciting for me as an amateur solar astronomer, and it represents an opportunity to share something new with my audience on social media.
“Because of that, I’m always thrilled to see something new. These images were particularly difficult to get due to the conditions, so to shoot them as well as they did was exciting.
Andrew McCarthy overlaid 150,000 individual images of the sun to convey the stunning and intricate detail of the largest star in the solar system in December 2021
The dark spots in the images are actually reversed by the photographic process and are actually very bright high energy areas of the hot star
According to a model physicists at the University of Warwick and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), the current solar cycle will be one of the best ever observed.
The solar cycle is an approximately 11-year cycle of solar activity driven by the sun’s magnetic field, measured in terms of changes in sunspot number.
Scientists predicted that we would observe a peak number of sunspots somewhere between 210 and 260 in solar cycle 25, which began in December 2019.
This means that the sun could produce more electrons and protons than before, making solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) more frequent than in the past decade.
Our star has been experiencing increased activity for the past few months and last month triggered its most powerful solar flare in five years.
Scientists fear increased activity from the sun could lead to potentially dangerous solar weather that could damage power grids, knock out satellites and harm astronauts and space equipment on the International Space Station.
THE SUN: THE BASICS
The sun is the star at the heart of the solar system, an almost perfect sphere of hot plasma, radiating energy.
Three-quarters of the star is made up of hydrogen, followed by helium, oxygen, carbon, neon, and iron.
It is a G-type main sequence star and is sometimes referred to as a yellow dwarf.
The Sun formed from the gravitational collapse of matter into a large molecular cloud that gathered at the center.
The rest flattened into an orbiting disk that formed everything else.
Facts and figures
Last namee: Sun
Known aircraftyou: Eight
Spectral type: G2
Distance: 2.7×10^17 kilometers
Ray: 696,342 kilometers
Age: 4.6 billion years old
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