Christmas Lights From the Sun: NASA Shares Spectacular Solar Images

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NASA has beamed out a Christmas gift to the world - a brilliant image of blue and green X-rays shooting off the sun - captured by the space agency's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuStar.

X-rays stream off the sun in this image showing observations from NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, overlaid on a picture taken by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). - NASA
  • NASA
  • X-rays stream off the sun in this image showing observations from NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, overlaid on a picture taken by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO).

NuSTAR, managed for NASA by the Solar Dynamics Observatory at the California Institute of Technology, was designed to investigate the far reaches of distant galaxies, with particular focus on black holes. But scientists instead turned the orbiting telescope to the Sun to capture a close-up of its mysterious atmosphere. 

What they found was beautiful and powerful, all at once.

"At first I thought the whole idea was crazy," principal investigator Fiona Harrison said in a statement. "Why would we have the most sensitive high energy X-ray telescope ever built, designed to peer deep into the universe, look at something in our backyard?"

Now, NuSTAR is expected to unlock the mystery of so-called nanoflares, which, to date remain only a theory. According to a statement from NASA, "Nonoflares, should they exist, may explain why the sun's outer atmosphere, called the corona, is sizzling hot, a mystery called the coronal heating problem. The corona is, on average, 1.8 million degrees Fahrenheit while the surface of the sun is relatively cooler at 10,800 Fahrenheit. It is like a flame coming out of an ice cube. Nanoflares, in combination with flares, may be sources of the intense heat."

The new photograph captured a gigantic solar flare, which erupted in an extremely active area of the sun called Active Region 2242. Scientists said it's one of the most spectacular flares ever captured in an image.