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Earth's most powerful telescope just captured stunning images of the sun. Here are the otherworldly photos.

Building the world's largest telescope
Building the world's largest telescope 04:51

A powerful telescope focused on the sun has returned otherworldly, high-quality photos showing the surface of our solar system's star. 

The telescope, operated by the National Science Foundation, captured images of sunspots and quiet regions. The scope, known as the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope, uses a high-quality imaging device to capture the photos, according to a May 19 news release announcing the photos. 

The Inouye Solar Telescope, on the island of Maui, Hawaii, is the most powerful solar telescope in the world, according to the foundation.

The foundation called the photos "unprecedented" and said the details visible in the images would help solar scientists "better understand the Sun's magnetic field," as well as give information about the possible causes of solar storms, which is what happens when the sun releases large amounts of energy in the form of solar flares. 

The photographed sunspots show dark and cool regions on the sun's photosphere, or surface. These are formed by strong magnetic fields, the National Science Foundation said, and can vary in size but are often equal or larger than the size of the Earth. Photos of the sunspots show bright dots, known as umbral dots, surrounded by bright strands known as "penumbral filaments." In the umbra, the magnetic field is the strongest. 

Bright orange filaments surrounded umbral dots in a sunspot. NSF/AURA/NSO

Other photos show quiet regions of the sun. One photo shows convection cells, which are rising plumes of incredibly hot plasma. The cells are surrounded by lanes of cooler plasma flowing downwards, creating a bright orange and yellow pattern in the photograph.

The plasma rises in bright bubbles before cooling and darkening.  NSF/AURA/NSO

Another incredible image shows what the National Science Foundation called a "light bridge," which crosses a sunspot's umbra from end to end. The bridges are "believed to be the signature of the start of a decaying sunspot," meaning that area will eventually break apart. The image taken by the telescope shows the light bridge in "remarkable detail," the foundation said. 

The light bridge as photographed by the Inouye Solar Telescope. NSF/AURA/NSO

The telescope also photographed the chromosphere, the atmospheric level above the photosphere. There, images show dark tendrils "originating from locations of small-scale magnetic field accumulations," the foundation said. 

The fine threads of plasma that make up the solar atmosphere are visible in this image.  NSF/AURA/NSO

The photos captured this month are just the start of the telescope's mission, the National Science Foundation said. The scope is in its "Operations Commissioning Phase," where it is slowly brought up to full capability. Multiple researchers were invited to use the scope during this phase, after they submitted proposals for specific goals. 

The images captured are just some of the data collected by those researchers, the foundation said. More information will be released by the Inouye Solar Telescope's Data Center in the future. 

"As the Inouye Solar Telescope continues to explore the Sun, we expect more new and exciting results from the scientific community – including spectacular views of our solar system's most influential celestial body," the foundation said. 

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