Scientists see the light: Hi-C captures clearest images ever of sun

The High Resolution Coronal Imager snapped pictures of the sun's corona, a region that produces solar flares that can affect the Earth's power grids.

During a mission that could have implications for the safety of the world’s power grids, scientists saw the sun in unprecedented detail, NASA announced Wednesday.

The High Resolution Coronal Imager, or Hi-C, captured images of the sun's corona, the area around the sun’s surface where solar flares and storms reaching upwards of 7 million degrees occur. Those flares or storms occasionally hit the Earth.

"The largest of these solar storms could affect the electrical grid," said Karel Schrijver, senior fellow at the Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center in Palo Alto, Calif. He said the images the Hi-C caught could help scientists forecast space weather.

Jonathan Cirtain, principal investigator for the Hi-C mission, said the sun is currently at its maximum period of activity, noting that it goes through 11-year cycles during which more or fewer sun spots appear. And more sun spots, in a time such as now, mean more flares.

The Hi-C mission launched July 11, 2012. In 620 seconds, the instrument managed to take 165 images at a resolution five times higher than ever seen before, according to a NASA press release. The mission cost about $5 million total, including launch costs.

"We accomplished something that most thought was nearly impossible," Cirtain said.

He said the Hi-C was placed over an active region where "we were bound to see something amazing."

"What this research does is act like a microscope and zooms in on these real fine structures we’ve never seen before," NASA rocket program scientist Jeff Newmark said.

Schrijver stressed the importance and difficulty of understanding our sun and how it acts.

He said the only way for us to understand what happens on the sun is through observation. That understanding, he said, will be key to learning about the sun and what damage it could cause to the power grid.

"We know where the energy is," Schrijver said. "We don’t know why at any given time it's released."

See video of Hi-C’s observations of the sun at NASA’s website.

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