Watch: Closest Pictures Ever Taken of the Sun

by GoNews Desk 10 months ago Views 1943

They are the closest pictures ever taken of the Sun by the unassuming Solar Orbiter.

The Solar Orbiter is an international collaboration between the European Space Agency, or ESA, and NASA, to study our closest star, the Sun. Launched on Feb. 9, 2020, the spacecraft completed its first close pass of the Sun in mid-June.

“These unprecedented pictures of the Sun are the closest we have ever obtained,” said Holly Gilbert, NASA project scientist for the mission at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “These amazing images will help scientists piece together the Sun’s atmospheric layers, which is important for understanding how it drives space weather near the Earth and throughout the solar system.”

“We didn’t expect such great results so early,” said Daniel Müller, ESA’s Solar Orbiter project scientist. “These images show that Solar Orbiter is off to an excellent start.”

Getting to this point was no simple feat. The novel coronavirus forced mission control at the European Space Operations Center, or ESOC, in Darmstadt, Germany to close down completely for more than a week. During commissioning, the period when each instrument is extensively tested, ESOC staff were reduced to a skeleton crew. All but essential personnel worked from home.

“The pandemic required us to perform critical operations remotely – the first time we have ever done that,” said Russell Howard, principal investigator for one of Solar Orbiter's imagers.

But the team adapted, even readying for an unexpected encounter with comet ATLAS’s ion and dust tails on June 1 and 6, respectively. The spacecraft completed commissioning just in time for its first close solar pass on June 15. As it flew within 48 million miles of the Sun, all 10 instruments flicked on, and Solar Orbiter snapped the closest pictures of the Sun to date. (Other spacecraft have been closer, but none have carried Sun-facing imagers.)

Solar Orbiter carries six imaging instruments, each of which studies a different aspect of the Sun. Normally, the first images from a spacecraft confirm the instruments are working; scientists don’t expect new discoveries from them. But the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager, or EUI, on Solar Orbiter returned data hinting at solar features never observed in such detail.

Principal investigator David Berghmans, an astrophysicist at the Royal Observatory of Belgium in Brussels, points out what he calls “campfires” dotting the Sun in EUI’s images.

“The campfires we are talking about here are the little nephews of solar flares, at least a million, perhaps a billion times smaller,” Berghmans said. “When looking at the new high resolution EUI images, they are literally everywhere we look.”

(Solar Orbiter spots ‘campfires’ on the Sun. Locations of campfires are annotated with white arrows.)

It’s not yet clear what these campfires are or how they correspond to solar brightenings observed by other spacecraft. But it’s possible they are mini-explosions known as nanoflares – tiny but ubiquitous sparks theorized to help heat the Sun's outer atmosphere, or corona, to its temperature 300 times hotter than the solar surface.


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