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Get ready to see the Sun like you’ve never seen it before

Published Jul 16th, 2020 1:46PM EDT
solar orbiter images
Image: Solar Orbiter/EUI Team (ESA & NASA); CSL, IAS, MPS, PMOD/WRC, ROB, UCL/MSSL

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  • The Solar Orbiter mission was launched in February, but it’s already providing some stunning images of our star.
  • The spacecraft snapped images so detailed that scientists are already spotting interesting things on the Sun’s surface.
  • Small “campfires” on the Sun were spotted, and researchers are eager to learn more about them.

The Solar Orbiter — a joint mission between the European Space Agency and NASA — was launched back in February. Its mission is relatively straightforward and includes taking images of our star that would never be possible from Earth. Now, months after it was shot skyward, the spacecraft finally sent back what scientists have been waiting for: the most detailed images of the Sun’s surface that we’ve ever seen.

NASA is pretty excited about the whole thing and published a blog post today to showcase the stunning images and explain exactly what we’re seeing. As it turns out, there’s even more happening on the Sun’s surface than we thought.

The Solar Orbiter had to get pretty close in order to snap some good images. It orbited the star within a distance of approximately 48 million miles. Now, that may sound like a safe distance, but consider the fact that you can still feel the Sun’s warmth on Earth at roughly twice that distance and you’ll understand how steamy things must be when you get that close.

“These unprecedented pictures of the Sun are the closest we have ever obtained,” Holly Gilbert, NASA project scientist, said in a statement. “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.”

One of the more interesting things that scientists have already learned from the Solar Orbiter is that the Sun’s flares aren’t always the massive arcs of twisting plasma that we’ve come to know from observations taken from Earth. In fact, tiny solar “campfires” — tiny flares that wouldn’t be visible from Earth — dot the star’s surface.

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.

These are some very interesting findings, but the Solar Orbiter isn’t even close to being finished. The mission is slated to last at least seven years, with another three-year extension tacked on to the end. The spacecraft will eventually get even closer to the Sun’s surface, coming within the orbit of Mercury and making observations at a distance of around 26 million miles.

The mission hopes to uncover some secrets about our star and offer scientists some insights into its features and phenomenon like solar wind and coronal mass ejections.

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