Us humans like to always push the limits of where we can go or at least what we can see. But as we try to find ever-distant stars, the sun remains a mystery. And, unlike distant stars, unraveling the sun's mysteries will have a more immediate impact on our lives.
A new X-ray space telescope that's about to launch will provide scientists with a much better view at the more subtle phenomenon happening in the sun's atmosphere.
While it's the big flares that every knows about and that make for great looking photos, smaller events that now can't really be detected or analyzed may provide a better picture of the sun and its tumultuous outer layer.
FOXSI, or Focusing Optics X-ray Solar Imager, is a next-generation X-ray space telescope, developed by NASA, which will launch any day now.
This instrument is a short-lived one. Launching on top of a sounding rocket, it will only travel about 200 miles, or 321 km, above the Earth. It's designed to study small solar flares for which few data exists.
"There are two basic possibilities. One is that small flares are similar to large flares. But then we'd have to explain why they appear at a different rate and in different places than the big ones," Steven Christe, the project scientist for FOXSi, at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
"So we need to determine whether these small events are really happening all the time, all over the sun. The other possibility is that they are fundamentally different than large flares and that would be extremely interesting and would point to a difference in the physics that powers large versus small flares," he added.
During the six-minute trip, FOXSI will gather as much information as it can while focusing on a very specific portion of the sun's surface.
This won't be the last telescope to use the new technologies developed specifically for this mission. Once enough has been learned, a satellite telescope may eventually be built based on the technology used by FOXSI.
One of the mysteries that astronomers are trying to solve is just how the sun's atmosphere is heated to millions of degrees, while the surface is a mere 6,000 K hot.