Solar Orbiter, a joint Sun-observing mission between the European Space Agency or ESA and the NASA released the first public images, including the closest pictures of the Sun ever taken.
As per the NASA release, Solar Orbiter is an international collaboration between the ESA and NASA to study the closest star, the Sun. The mission which was launched on February 9, 2020 (EST) completed its first close pass of the Sun in the mid-June. When the orbiter flew within 48 million miles of the Sun, all 10 instruments flicked on, and Solar Orbiter snapped the closest pictures of the Sun to date.
"These unprecedented pictures of the Sun are the closest we have ever obtained," said Holly Gilbert, NASA project scientist for the mission at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
#SolarOrbiter has made its first close pass by the Sun, studying our star and space with a comprehensive suite of instruments — and the data is already revealing previously unseen details. This is #TheSunUpClose. https://t.co/rVMjz45DoY pic.twitter.com/YLKBXRNQZb
— NASA Sun & Space (@NASASun) July 16, 2020
As per Gilbert, these amazing images will help scientist piece together Sun's atmospheric layers which are important in understanding how it drives space weather near the Earth and throughout the solar system.
"We didn't expect such great results so early. These images show that Solar Orbiter is off to an excellent start," said Daniel Muller, ESA's Solar Orbiter project scientist.
Solar Orbiter carries six imaging instruments, each of which studies a different aspect of the Sun. 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 scientist said that getting to this point was no simple feat as the novel coronavirus forced mission control at the European Space Operations Center, or ESOC, in Darmstadt, Germany to close down completely for more than a week.
“The pandemic required us to perform critical operations remotely – the first time we have ever done that,” said Russell Howard, principal investigator for one of Solar Orbiter's imagers.
Principal investigator David Berghmans, an astrophysicist at the Royal Observatory of Belgium in Brussels, points out what he calls "campfires" dotting the Sun in EUI's images.
"The campfires we are talking about here are the little nephews of solar flares, at least a million, perhaps a billion times smaller. When looking at the new high-resolution EUI images, they are literally everywhere we look," Berghmans said.
The scientist said that 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.
In a bid to know more about the campfires' temperature, scientists are awaiting the next set of data from the orbiter.