China's space lab has a spot in the Sun

By Phil Plait | May 14, 2012 6:30 am

On May 11, the phenomenal astrophotographer Thierry Legault took another amazing picture of the Sun (See Related Posts below for more of Thierry’s work that’s been featured here at the BA blog). Setting up his equipment in the south of France, he captured this truly magnificent shot of our nearest star… and when you finish picking your jaw off the floor, stick around, because your amazement isn’t done yet:

[Click to hugely ensolarnate.]

I know, right? That HUGE sunspot cluster is Active Region 1476, which has been blorting out some small flares, but nothing major. That’s a bit surprising, given how big and active the magnetic field is in those spots. Still, the cluster has grown to something like 200,000 km (120,000 miles) stem to stern, and that one big spot is 100,000 or so km (60,000 miles) across. Mind you, the Earth is about 13,000 km (8000 miles) across, so keep that in mind when you’re looking at it.

But there’s more to see! Including the reason Thierry took this picture in the first place…

See the circle to the left of the spot? Thierry put that in there to mark the location of something else. See the tiny dot in the middle of the circle? That may not look like much, but it’s important.

Thierry chose the time and location of this picture very carefully. From his location in France, at that time, the Chinese spacecraft Tiangong-1 could be seen crossing the Sun’s face! That’s what that dot is. Tiangong-1 is actually the first module of China’s planned space station. It’s small, only about 10 meters long, and was about 540 km (320 miles) from Thierry when he took this image. The module is orbiting the Earth at roughly 8 km/sec (5 miles/sec) so it took less than a second to transit the Sun!

I love how you can see the solar panels, perfect little lines sticking out of the main body of the module. From that distance, the module is about 4 arcseconds long — that’s a unit of size on the sky, where for comparison the Sun is about 1800 arcseconds across. So Tiangong-1 is very tiny indeed compared to the Sun, even though the Sun is more than 250,000 times farther away!

So, in many ways, this is a truly remarkable photograph.

And keep your eyes on that sunspot cluster (though not literally, because ow). If it decides to make its presence known again, I’ll have something up here on the blog as soon as I know. You can also check Space Weather for current news on solar activity.

Related Posts:

Doomed Russian Mars probe seen from the ground
Doomed ROSAT captured in video
Atlantis, one last time in the Sun
SERIOUSLY jaw-dropping pictures of Endeavour and the ISS!
Discovery spacewalk seen from the ground
Ridiculously awesome pic of Discovery and the ISS taken from the ground!


Comments (19)

  1. Sunspots, nothing. That’s clearly Hawai`i.

  2. Alhazred


    LOL! Yeah, but I think it is a few 1000 degrees more tropical… ūüėČ

  3. Nigel Depledge

    Thierry’s work is so cool!

  4. Chris

    I wonder if they are reporting that in China.

  5. On Google+ I saw a picture that compared reagion 1476 to Jupiter. Mindnumbingly huge! And Thierry’s work is spectacular.

  6. nathan

    that is bloody cool!

  7. Bigfoot

    @John Armstrong — my thoughts exactly. Hawaii is now free to change their slogan to “The Sunspot State”.

  8. Ruby

    I love how it looks so much like a bird. Cool.

  9. WJM

    Totally Hawaii!

  10. By the way, I am surprised at how little press is dedicated to the Chinese Space Station efforts. I almost forgot that they plan to build one!

  11. Yes, I was thinking the same :) Mega-Hawaii!

  12. Georgijs

    That is why I love the Universe. You can never know when a surprise will occur. This is what humans would call “luck”. (I’m talking about Tiangong-1 in the picture)

  13. Brian Too

    The Chinese space station is going on a vacation!

  14. Messier Tidy Upper

    @12. Georgijs : Not luck actually – very careful planning and calculating for the exact timing. This shot wasn’t captured by chance! ūüėČ

    China’s space station sure looks small there – wonder how it compares to Skylab and the early Russian Salyuts?

    I have mixed feelings over the Chinese progress here given their government’s totalitarian nature and its dominating ambitions and the contrast with the advancing Chinese space program and the moribund Western human spaceflight one. I’ll never forget the Tianamin square massacre or the Chinese atrocities and brutality in their occupation of Tibet and Xinjiang and their menacing of Taiwan and more. So The “Peoples*” (very undemocratic) Republic of China’s advances here are cool but also unsettling.

    I hope we aren’t left behind by China’s and that their progress spurs the West into catching up and staying ahead of them.

    * Geographic rule of thumb – if a nation calls itself a “Peoples republic” that almost always indicates its a very nasty dictatorship ruled by a single party or leader – other examples include North Korea, Albania and the former East Germany.

  15. Rakesh

    i think that, the spots are because of the temperature disorder ……..

  16. #14 MTU:
    And when a country puts the word “Democratic” in its name, it invariably means it’s anything but.

  17. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Neil Haggath : Yep, indeed.

    Pretty sure a few nations double down on that front – The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (if memory serves) being one.

  18. Matt B.

    It’s interesting that in the hugely ensolarnated picture, you can see areas that are less in focus, I’m guessing because of atmospheric effects.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar