The closest images ever taken of the Sun have been released to the public for the first time by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).
A spacecraft known as the Solar Orbiter was launched into space on the 9th of February earlier this year. It is part of a $1.3 billion collaboration between ESA and NASA.
Its goal is to study our closest star. And as of mid-June this year it has completed its first close-pass of the Sun. The images it sent back are the closest ever taken.
The Earth lies approximately 93 million miles from the Sun. The Solar Orbiter has gotten as close as 48 million miles from its surface.
In an already impressive year for space exploration, these images are another huge success. The excitement amongst the scientists involved is obvious.
Holly Gilbert, NASA project scientist for the mission at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, noted the mission’s importance. “These unprecedented pictures of the Sun are the closest we have ever obtained.”
“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.”
Success against the odds
The project has been a major success so far, especially considering the impact that the coronavirus pandemic has had on the mission. The ESA mission control centre in Germany shut down entirely for more than a week during the pandemic.
Working from home became the norm for all but a few people in critical roles. Russell Howard, principal investigator for one of Solar Orbiter’s imagers, recalls this. “The pandemic required us to perform critical operations remotely – the first time we have ever done that.”
The Solar Orbiter has six imaging instruments onboard, all of which study varying aspects of our closest star. The Extreme Ultraviolet Imager, or EUI, has revealed solar features in detail never seen before.
The discovery of solar “campfires”
Among the new discoveries made, solar “campfires” are one of the most intriguing. Principal investigator David Berghmans explained the appearance of these so-called “campfires” seen in the 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 notes. “When looking at the new high resolution EUI images, they are literally everywhere we look.”
No one knows what these “campfires” are exactly, but there are some predictions. They may be nano-flares, which are mini-explosions that help to heat the Sun’s outer atmosphere. This could help to explain why the Sun’s corona is 300 times hotter than its surface.
The Spectral Imaging of the Coronal Environment (or SPICE instrument) onboard the Solar Orbiter may reveal the answers.
“So we’re eagerly awaiting our next data set,” noted Frédéric Auchère, principal investigator for SPICE operations at the Institute for Space Astrophysics in Orsay, France.
“The hope is to detect nano-flares for sure and to quantify their role in coronal heating.”
As the Solar Explorer collects new data, answers to these questions and many more could soon be revealed. Watch this space.
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