The NuSTAR telescope – Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array – normally turns its gaze on black holes and other farther objects in the solar system. But this time, scientists decided to turn its eye closer to home.
The telescope managed to capture an image of the sun’s high-energy X-ray flashes — something never done before.
The sun has been too bright for other NASA telescopes, but NuSTAR, with its special design, is able to look at it without damaging its detectors.
“NuSTAR will give us a unique look at the sun, from the deepest to the highest parts of its atmosphere," said David Smith, a solar physicist and member of the NuSTAR team at University of California, Santa Cruz.
Images gathered by NuSTAR could help scientists unravel one of their biggest solar mysteries as they continue to train the telescope on the sun.
Scientists are eager to get evidence of nanoflares – small versions of the sun’s giant flares that erupt with high-energy radiation and charged particles.
“NuSTAR will be exquisitely sensitive to the faintest X-ray activity happening in the solar atmosphere, and that includes possible nanoflares," said Smith.
If nanoflares exist, they could explain why the sun’s corona, its outer atmosphere, is super hot (averaging 1 million Celsius), while the surface of the sun is much cooler at 6,000 C.The nanoflares could be the sources of that intense heat.
NuSTAR, which launched in 2012, has had its mission extended to 2016.