The most detailed photo ever taken of a sunspot shows a dark patch bigger than Earth roiling for 10,000 miles

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An image of a sunspot taken on January 28, 2020 by the NSF’s Inouye Solar Telescope. NSO/AURA/NSF

Stunning new imagery of an enormous dark spot on the sun looks like a heart or flaming flower.

The sunspot — where strong magnetic fields meet hot gases boiling up from within — is roughly 10,000 miles across. That’s wide enough for Earth to have some wiggle room inside it.

The world’s largest solar observatory, the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope on the Hawaiian island of Maui, captured the phenomenon in unprecedented detail on January 28. The National Science Foundation, which owns the telescope, released the image and a video of the sunspot on Friday.

“The sunspot image achieves a spatial resolution about 2.5 times higher than ever previously achieved, showing magnetic structures as small as 20 kilometers on the surface of the sun,” Thomas Rimmele, associate director at the NSF’s National Solar Observatory, which operates the telescope, said in a press release.

Sunspots form in areas where the sun’s magnetic field is so powerful that it lowers the atmospheric pressure, which in turn lowers the temperature. In this case, the dark spot is a cool 7,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

The flower-petal-like streaks splaying out from the dark spot come from the interaction between the magnetic fields and hot gases bubbling up from below the surface.

This roiling action is visible in the video clip below. It captures about one-and-a-half minutes of real-time solar activity, compressed into just four seconds. The frame is about 12,000 miles across.

Sunspot gif inouye solar telescope

Inouye could help predict violent eruptions on the sun

The Inouye telescope made a splash when it released its first observations in January. Though the telescope was not yet finished, its first images of the sun were clearer than those of any prior telescope.

Solar surface plasma inouye telescope
A movie from the Inouye Solar Telescope shows how the sun’s plasma moves across its surface. NSO/NSF/AURA

This powerful lens could help scientists unravel the mysteries of space weather and even predict solar events that could be dangerous to humans.

That’s because the entire solar system sits within the outer reaches of the sun’s atmosphere. Magnetic, electrically charged particles from the sun constantly wash over the planets in a steady stream called solar wind. This magnetic stream creates aurorae as it interacts with Earth’s atmosphere. But violent explosions on the sun send out surges of electrically charged particles that can damage crucial technology.

Solar Wind
An animation of solar wind shows particles streaming from the sun towards Earth. NASA

By using Inoye to study the dynamics of these events, scientists could start to predict them.

Inouye could also help solve major mystery: why the sun’s corona is up to 500 times hotter than its surface. Astronomers have been struggling to understand this phenomenon since the 1940s.

Construction on the telescope was supposed to finish in June of this year, but the pandemic pushed it back to 2021.

Inouye solar telescope maui
The Inouye Solar Telescope sits near the summit of Haleakalā in Maui, Hawai’i. NSO/AURA/NSF

“The start of telescope operations has been slightly delayed due to the impacts of the COVID-19 global pandemic,” David Boboltz, NSF’s program director for Inouye, said in the release.

But he added that “this image represents an early preview of the unprecedented capabilities that the facility will bring to bear on our understanding of the sun.”