Solar Orbiter captures stunning new images revealing a never-before-seen view of our sun
The first close passage of the Sun by the Solar Orbiter mission in March has revealed our star in a new light.
The spacecraft, which flew past the Sun on March 26, has provided a wealth of new images and insights after coming within a third of the Sun’s distance from Earth.
Watch the video above to learn more about another shocking discovery in space.
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The Solar Orbiter’s heat shield reached a temperature of about 500C, but functioned as expected, protecting the spacecraft during its historic first flight.
Solar Orbiter has a multilayer heat shield, a special “Solar Black” coating of burnt bone, and sliding doors that protect the instruments.
The spacecraft also has solar panels that can tilt away from the worst heating and cooling elements in the interior. Together, these keep the spacecraft from melting as it studies the Sun.
The mission, a joint effort of NASA and the European Space Agency, captured images of powerful flares, coronal mass ejections, and perspectives from the new solar poles. The Orbiter even spotted a new feature nicknamed “hedgehog”.
Solar Orbiter’s Extreme Ultraviolet Imager captured this image of the Sun. Credit: ESA & NASA/Solar Orbiter
An active star
Scientists have just started analyzing the full data set captured by the Orbiter’s ten science instruments. Still, the insights will deepen our understanding of the Sun’s behavior and how it affects the space weather, which affects Earth.
The Sun is getting more active, and Solar Orbiter has been watching its tantrums as the Sun heads toward solar maximum.
Understanding the solar cycle is important because space weather caused by the Sun — eruptions such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections — can affect the power grid, satellites, GPS, airlines, rockets, and astronauts in space.
Every 11 years, the Sun completes a solar cycle of calm and stormy activity and begins a new one.
The current solar cycle, Solar Cycle 25, officially began in December 2019, and the next solar maximum, when the Sun experiences peak activity, is expected to occur in July 2025.
During a solar cycle, the Sun moves from a quiet period to a very intense and active one.
This activity is tracked by counting sunspots and how many are visible over time.
Sunspots, or dark spots on the Sun, are the starting point for the explosive eruptions and ejection events that release light, solar material, and energy into space.
Solar Orbiter and another mission called Parker Solar Probe are in a perfect position to watch as we move toward the Sun’s maximum.
The intriguing feature in the lower third of the image, below the center, has been nicknamed the solar hedgehog. No one knows exactly what it is or how it came to be. Credit: European Space Agency
As Solar Orbiter creates detailed new images of the Sun, scientists try to determine what they see by comparing them to previous solar observations from past missions to decide whether or not they are known features or unknown phenomena.
One of these unexpected finds has been dubbed “the hedgehog,” a feature that extends 25,000 km from the Sun and has peaks of hot and cold gas.
There is no explanation for what it is or how it formed in the Sun’s atmosphere.
Solar Orbiter also captured a movie of an active region on the Sun where the magnetic field releases a loop that rises into the atmosphere.
Gas moves around the loops, cooling and creating “coronal rain” on the Sun’s surface. The scientific team also saw “coronal moss,” where bright gas makes lacy patterns on the Sun.
“The images are truly breathtaking,” said David Berghmans, principal investigator of the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager instrument at the Royal Observatory of Belgium.
“Even if Solar Orbiter stopped collecting data tomorrow, I’d spend years figuring everything out.”
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Unraveling solar mysteries
The Solar Orbiter mission is designed to study the Sun’s outer atmosphere, called the corona, and determine how the Sun interacts with the heliosphere, a bubble full of charged particles released by the Sun that extend beyond the planets. Our solar system extends.
Space weather occurs when the Sun releases its stream of charged particles called the solar wind and activity through the solar magnetic fields.
The corona can reach a million degrees Celsius while the surface is 5000C.
Solar Orbiter could help determine why the temperature of the Sun’s core appears to be rising instead of falling.
The spacecraft’s instruments record data from the solar wind and magnetic fields and attempt to trace them back to their origin through the complex, magnetic environment and back to the Sun.
Each instrument is responsible for observing and recording different aspects of the Sun.
Combining these insights could one day be used to help scientists predict space weather from Earth.
The Orbiter observed the Sun’s south pole on March 30 in the highest resolution yet in this mysterious region. Credit: European Space Agency
Leading up to the near-flyby, Solar Orbiter was essentially upstream from Earth, observing solar wind and coronal mass ejections that could be headed toward Earth.
By sending data back in real-time at the speed of light, stargazers were warned to watch for auroras on Earth.
But monitoring space weather this way could also help us better protect our technology infrastructure and even astronauts on the International Space Station.
A future ESA mission, Vigil, will eventually be placed at a point to one side of the Sun and observe coronal mass ejections on their way to Earth.
Solar Orbiter is now moving into position for a third flight past Venus in September and the Sun’s next close pass in October.
More flybys will bring the spacecraft closer and closer to the star in the coming years. Gradually, the spacecraft will increase its orientation to study the Sun’s polar regions more directly than ever before.
This never-before-seen image of the poles could help scientists understand the Sun’s complex polar magnetic environment, which could reveal the true heart of the solar cycle.