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This Is The Closest Image Of The Sun Ever Taken. Pictures Ever by ojun50(m): 9:32am On Jul 18, 2020
NASA and the European Space Agency's (ESA) Solar Orbiter spacecraft is making a beeline for the sun. On the way there, it's managed to snap some incredible photos.

Today, the space agencies have announced that Solar Orbiter has taken the closest ever-image of the sun. The stunning photo and other images were taken during the spacecraft's inaugural close encounter with the sun, known as perihelion, in mid-June and capture a number of new, strange phenomena never before seen on the star at the center of our solar system.

"When you look at [the sun] at high resolution, it's amazing in the smallest details how much stuff is going on there," David Berghmans, the principal investigator of the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) at the Royal Observatory of Belgium, said in a July 16 press conference. "We couldn't believe this when we first saw it."

In February, Solar Orbiter launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket. Shortly after launch, ESA engineers briefly paused work on the spacecraft as it hurtled toward the sun due to the spread of the novel coronavirus. It was one of four missions—including the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter and Mars Express, as well as four Earth-orbiting Cluster satellites—to have been temporarily shut down.

"When the lockdown came to reality, we had to replan everything," José Luis Pellón Bailón, Solar Orbiter's Deputy Spacecraft Operations Manager at ESA, said during the press conference. "One of the biggest restrictions was that only two engineers could be in the control room at the same time."

Since work resumed, Solar Orbiter has already flexed its photography muscles; last month, for example, it captured incredible images of the comet ATLAS. "It was difficult, but it has worked, I think, better than expected," Pellón Bailón said.

Mission Possible

Solar Obiter is designed to survey the heliosphere, a giant plasma bubble that encapsulates the entire solar system.

The spacecraft will take a close look at the sun's poles, which are a relatively unstudied region of the star. In particular, scientists hope to find out what happens when the sun's magnetic field flips at the end of the 11-year solar cycle, where the sun switches between periods of high and low activity. (We're currently in a quiet period.) Solar Orbiter will also inspect the charge particles that ride on solar winds burped out by the sun and study how space weather creates powerful solar storms, called coronal mass ejections.

Solar storms are a critical field of study for the world's space agencies. The most powerful solar storm ever observed, the Carrington Event of 1859, was so strong that telegram wires spontaneously burst into flames. In our modern world, the consequences are much more dire: Scientists believe a similar solar storm could cause continent-wide power failures and destroy communication and navigation satellites orbiting Earth. It could also jeopardize the lives of astronauts living and working aboard the International Space Station.

Of course, Solar Orbiter isn't the only spacecraft studying the sun. NASA's Parker Solar Probe, which launched in 2018, is also in orbit around the sun, collecting a bevy of important data. While the NASA probe will get much closer to the sun than Solar Orbiter, it doesn't have cameras strong enough to withstand the sun's heat at that distance.

Perihelion Photoshoot

This first close pass of the sun marked the first time all 10 of the spacecraft's instruments were booted up to collect data. The images and data were collected from a distance of about 48 million miles from the sun. (Earth, by comparison, is about 95 million miles from the sun.) At the time, the spacecraft was traveling along an orbit sandwiched between Venus and Mercury.

Six of the instruments are specially designed to take pictures of the sun. The close range images of the sun's corona—which can spike to temperatures of 1 million degrees—were taken by the spacecraft's Extreme Ultraviolet Imager.

According to David Berghmans, the principal investigator of the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) at the Royal Observatory of Belgium, the months leading up to the launch were extremely challenging, as the team had to fix a series of issues with the camera's mirrors.

"When the first images came in, the first thought was, 'This is not possible. It cannot be that good,'" Berghmans said. "It was really much better than what we dared to hope for."

Other instruments were hard at work capturing data during the flyby, too, including the spacecraft's Polarimetric and Helioseismic Imager (PHI) instrument, which is designed to collect data about the sun's magnetic field.

Coronal Campfires

The imagery revealed a number of tiny flares—cheekily dubbed "campfires"—sprinkled across the sun's corona.

"There is so much new small phenomena going on on the smallest scales that we are starting a new vocabulary to give it a name," Berghmans said. "Many of these things have been seen before at bigger scales, but never at this small a scale in the quiet corona."

Scientists aren't exactly sure what causes these glistening flares speckled across the sun's corona, but they have some theories.

Each flare, Berghmans said, is "about the size of a European country." The flares may be created through the same process that spurs larger solar flares, or there may be some other mechanism that drives them. Another theory? Perhaps they're simply the smaller cousins of larger solar flares.

"These are clearly just the first test images, so it's too early to draw any scientific conclusions, but our conjecture is that these campfires are related to changes in the sun's magnetic field," Daniel Müller, Solar Orbiter's project scientist at ESA, said during the press conference.

As lines of the sun's powerful magnetic field are put under pressure, they get tangled and sometimes simply bend and snap.

These tiny campfires could be the key to unraveling an important solar mystery that seems to defy basic physics: Why does the sun's corona burn millions of degrees hotter than its surface?

The astrophysicist Eugene Parker—he of NASA's Parker Solar Probe—once theorized that a network of tiny flares in the sun's corona might cause that difference in temperature. These newest images seem to support the theory, the researchers say.

The team says more observations are needed to explore what, if any, role these features play in the sun's mysterious weather patterns. For now, it doesn't look like these small campfires influence the destructive solar winds that are sent out across the solar system.

What's Next?

Photo credit: Solar Orbiter/SoloHI team (ESA & NASA), NRL
Photo credit: Solar Orbiter/SoloHI team (ESA & NASA), NRL
Solar Orbiter is just getting started, and it has a long mission ahead of it. Ultimately, it will spin around the sun 22 times, at some points harnessing Venus's gravity to slingshot it to just the right spot. The spacecraft's closest approach will bring it within 26.1 million miles from the sun.

In 2025, Solar Orbiter will begin to study the sun's poles. The team says we should get results from this part of the mission two years later.

"The poles are terra incognito. It's like the Earth 150 years ago—nobody had been at the poles," Sami Solanki, the principal investigator of the spacecraft's PHI instrument and director of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, said at the press conference. "There will be a lot of new things to learn there."

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1 Like

Re: This Is The Closest Image Of The Sun Ever Taken. Pictures Ever by EngineerBode: 9:33am On Jul 18, 2020
Beautiful. Just beautiful
Re: This Is The Closest Image Of The Sun Ever Taken. Pictures Ever by tillaman(m): 9:42am On Jul 18, 2020
Re: This Is The Closest Image Of The Sun Ever Taken. Pictures Ever by ojun50(m): 9:49am On Jul 18, 2020
Beautiful. Just beautiful
Re: This Is The Closest Image Of The Sun Ever Taken. Pictures Ever by haiti007(m): 9:57am On Jul 18, 2020
I don't see anything beautiful in this! It looks fierce

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