The Solar Orbiter, an international collaboration between the European Space Agency, or ESA, and NASA, has captured the closest ever pictures of the Sun ever taken, and they are truly awe-inspiring. These images have been captured from a mere 77 million km, or 48 million miles, from the surface of the Sun.
Launched on 9th February 2020, the orbiter was launched to study the star closest to planet Earth – the Sun. In mid-June 2020, it completed its first close pass of the Sun.
According to Holly Gilbert, NASA project scientist for the mission at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, these images will “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.”
An important observation made by means of these pictures was the presence of miniature solar flares called ‘campfires’ that dot the Sun in the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager’s (EUI) images.
“The campfires we are talking about here are the little nephews of solar flares, at least a million, perhaps a billion times smaller,” Principal investigator David Berghmans, an astrophysicist at the Royal Observatory of Belgium in Brussels said. “When looking at the new high resolution EUI images, they are literally everywhere we look.”
While there is ambiguity about what these campfires are, scientists believe that these could aid in heating the Sun’s outer atmosphere – the Corona – to its temperature 300 times hotter than the solar surface.
Also, the Solar Orbiter will travel much closer to the Sun, and eventually reach to a distance of less than 43 million kilometres from the star. Ideally, the Earth is, on an average, about 149 million kilometres away from the Sun.
The Solar Orbiter is also the first mission that will produce images of the Sun’s north and south poles. This will be significant because it will help provide more information and details about the magnetic field of the Sun and its impact on Earth.
In terms of the objectives of the Solar Orbiter, ESA’s senior advisor for science and exploration, Mark McCaughrean, told BBC News, “Solar Orbiter isn’t going closer to the Sun just to get higher-resolution images: it’s going closer to get into a different, less turbulent part of the solar wind, studying the particles and magnetic field in situ at that closer distance, while simultaneously taking remote data on the surface of the Sun and immediately around it for context. No other mission or telescope can do that.”
To read more about the mission and see more pictures, click here.