New images of the Sun's surface—and it kind of looks like corn! Or maybe molten gold.

On January 29, astronomers released these never-before-seen, high-def images of the Sun's surface. For all that it does for us, our solar paramour is still mysterious in many ways. There are several science initiatives, like NASA's Living With a Star, that labor to better understand our Sun and how it affects us 93 million miles away.

So the National Science Foundation (NSF) spent two decades building a giant telescope on top of a dormant volcano. The Inouye Solar Telescope, perched atop Haleakala in Hawaii, is the most powerful telescope in the world, according to the NSF.

So, what are we looking at?

The image, captured at 789 nanometers (nm), shows us features as small as 30km (18 miles) in size. That means each one of those corn kernels, or "cell-like structures" as NSF describes them, is about the size of Texas. Scarier, each one those Texas's represents a violent upheaval of superheated plasma. The bright centers of those "cells" is where the heat from inside the Sun shoots up, before rolling back down around the dark borders in the same process of convection that happens in your oven. Essentially, it's all a snapshot of the boiling, roiling surface of the Sun.

That's neat, but why does it matter?

What you don't see in the image is the staggering amount of magnetic force erupting alongside the 5 million tons of hydrogen burning every second. The Sun's convulsions are responsible for the fantastically-named space weather, which refers to the solar wind, flares, and general conditions caused by the Sun. This space weather can disrupt satellites, or cause blackouts, and causes the Northern Lights. Scientists can currently predict space weather out to 48 minutes, but experts would rather push that out to 48 hours.

“On Earth, we can predict if it is going to rain pretty much anywhere in the world very accurately, and space weather just isn’t there yet,” says Matt Mountain, president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, which manages the new telescope. “Our predictions lag behind terrestrial weather by 50 years, if not more. What we need is to grasp the underlying physics behind space weather, and this starts at the sun, which is what the Inouye Solar Telescope will study over the next decades.”

huge telescope
The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope is the world's largest solar telescope. Courtesy of NSO/AURA/NSF.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.

The Inouye Solar Telescope, which brings to bear a 13-foot mirror and seven miles of underground cooling pipes, has a promising future ahead. “These first images are just the beginning,” says David Boboltz, a program director for NSF. “The Inouye Solar Telescope will collect more information about our sun during the first five years of its lifetime than all the solar data gathered since Galileo first pointed a telescope at the sun in 1612.”

What does the surface of the Sun look like to you? Do you ever think about the Sun, spinning and burning and just vibing out there, 93 million miles away?

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