Scientists take historic new photos of the sun

They are the closest photos of the sun ever to be taken. The photos were captured during the…

They are the closest photos of the sun ever to be taken.

The photos were captured during the efforts of “an international collaboration between the European Space Agency, or ESA, and NASA” to study the sun and learn about how its events affect our earth.

In February, the Solar Orbiter was sent up and away from earth. It travelled the long journey from Cape Canaveral in Florida and reached up to where it would photograph the sun—an unprecedented 48 million miles from it, closer than any other spacecraft with “Sun-facing imagers”—in the middle of June.

It has just sent the first batch of data down to earth. A NASA project scientist, Holly Gilbert, said that these new photos will mean new findings:

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.

Holly Gilbert

The first goal of the mission was to make sure the Solar Orbiter was working. No one expected such findings so soon:

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.


The new images show tiny versions of solar flares that David Berghmans, a principal investigator on the mission and a Royal Observatory of Belgium astrophysicist, refers to as “campfires.”

Sun campfires
“Campfires” on the sun. (ESA & NASA)

Scientists are excited to receive the next batch of data and hopefully learn more about what the campfires really are, exactly how hot they are, and what they do.

As the mission carries on, the Solar Orbiter will further near the sun and will be able to photograph solar winds. Because the first batch of images showed that the Solar and Heliospheric Imager managed to capture the “zodiacal light, light from the Sun reflecting off of interplanetary dust,” there is a very good chance that attempts to capture the solar winds in further images will be successful.

The Polar and Helioseismic Imager also showed promise:

The magnetic structures we see at the visible surface show that PHI is receiving top-quality data… We’re prepared for great science as more of the Sun’s poles comes into view.

PHI’s principal investigator Sami Solanki

The success of the mission so far is made even sweeter by the challenges in its preparation. The novel coronavirus meant that only a skeleton crew of staff could work on the commissioning phase of the mission when all the instruments were thoroughly tested before launch. Non-essential staff members worked remotely for the first time ever—and they triumphed.

Explore the new photos and videos in the European Space Agency’s gallery.

Article source: NASA

Featured image source: ESA & NASA

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