PASADENA (CBS SF) – NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, has taken its first picture of the sun, producing the most sensitive solar portrait ever taken in high energy X-rays.

“NuSTAR will give us a unique look at the sun, from the deepest to the highest parts of its atmosphere,” said David Smith, a solar physicist and member of the NuSTAR team at University of California, Santa Cruz.

According to NASA, solar scientists first thought to use NuSTAR to study the sun about seven years ago, after the space telescope’s design and construction was already underway.

The NuSTAR mission was launched into space in 2012, deploying the first orbiting telescopes to focus light in the high energy X-ray region of the electromagnetic spectrum. During its two-year primary mission phase, NuSTAR is mapping selected regions of the sky in order to take a census of collapsed stars and black holes, and mapping recently-synthesized material in young supernova remnants.

The sun is usually far too bright for other telescopes to safely look at without the risk of damaging its detectors. But in the higher-energy X-rays detected by NuSTAR, the sun is not as bright.

Scientists said with NuSTAR’s high-energy views, there is the potential to capture hypothesized nanoflares, which are smaller versions of the sun’s giant flares that erupt with charged particles and high-energy radiation. Scientists said that if nanoflares do indeed exist, it may explain why the sun’s outer atmosphere 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. Scientists said nanoflares, in combination with flares, may be sources of the intense heat.

NuSTAR’s mission operations center is at UC Berkeley and the mission is being led by Caltech and managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

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