Nov 29, 2006
Hinode captured an eruption around a sunspot near the Sun's limb
Japanese scientists have expressed their delight at the performance of the Hinode spacecraft which was sent into orbit in September to study the Sun.
The probe has returned remarkable close-up images of solar features that researchers hope will yield valuable new insights into the star's activity.
Hinode's primary goal is to investigate solar flares, colossal explosions that occur in the Sun's atmosphere.
The platform was built with the assistance of UK/US research teams.
The new pictures, which have been coloured and turned into movies, show the behaviour of sunspots, which are slightly cooler areas on the star's surface and marked by intense magnetic activity.
In one shot a huge eruption is seen over a sunspot.
"We knew [Hinode could] observe the Sun clearer than any other 'scopes, however I never thought that we could see such high-resolution images," said Dr Yoshinori Suematsu, from the Hinode project office at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan.
"So I am very amazed; I am very much looking forward to analysing individual magnetic fields on the Sun's surface which had never been available to see."
The spacecraft was launched from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) Uchinoura Space Centre at Uchinoura Kagoshima in southern Japan on 22 September.
It makes continuous, simultaneous observations in the extreme-ultraviolet, X-ray and optical portions of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Scientists want to see precisely how changes in the magnetic field at the Sun's surface can spread through the layers of the solar atmosphere to produce, ultimately, a flare.
Sunspots just appear dark next to their even brighter surroundings
Researchers want to understand, in particular, the key trigger mechanisms involved.
"We could successfully collect data about individual magnetic fields which could provide a clue to solve the mystery of eruption and temperature gaps," said Dr Suematsu.
Hinode is part of a fleet of spacecraft now dedicated to understanding the relationship between the Sun and the Earth.
Its launch was followed last month by that of Stereo, a US space agency (Nasa) mission that will make 3D observations of our star. Its focus will be coronal mass ejections, a related phenomenon to solar flares that also influence the "space weather" around the Earth.