SEE PICS | Closest-ever snaps of the sun 'exceed expectations'

A spacecraft called the Solar Orbiter is giving scientists an unprecedented look at the sun

16 July 2020 - 16:21 By AFP Relaxnews
This illustration, which was released by The European Space Agency, shows an artist's impression of the Solar Orbiter in space.
This illustration, which was released by The European Space Agency, shows an artist's impression of the Solar Orbiter in space.
Image: Solar Orbiter/EUI/ESA/NASA/AFP

Scientists said Thursday they had obtained the closest ever images taken of the sun as part of a pan-European mission to study solar winds and flares that could have far-reaching impacts back on Earth.

The European Space Agency's (ESA) Solar Orbiter blasted off from Florida's Cape Canaveral in February and completed its first fly by of our star last month, sending back unprecedented images of phenomena close to its surface.

“The first images are exceeding our expectations,” said Daniel Muller, Solar Orbiter project scientist at ESA.

“We can already see hints of very interesting phenomena that we have not been able to observe in detail before.

“This makes us confident that Solar Orbiter will help us answer profound open questions about the sun.”

The images gathered by the Solar Orbiter offer scientists an unprecedented look at the sun.
The images gathered by the Solar Orbiter offer scientists an unprecedented look at the sun.
Image: Solar Orbiter/EUI/ESA/NASA/AFP

In particular, the team observed dozens of miniature solar flares, known as “campfires”, which until now had never been captured on film.

David Berghmans, from Belgium's Royal Observatory, said the campfires were several million times smaller than solar flares, which can be observed from Earth.

“The sun seems relatively calm on first viewing but when you look at it in detail you can see miniature eruptions everywhere,” he said.

Solar winds and flares emit billions of highly charged particles that impact planets, including Earth. But the phenomena remain poorly understood despite decades of research.

The largest solar storm on record hit North America in September 1859, knocking out much of the continent's telegraph network and bathing the skies in an aurora viewable as far away as the Caribbean.

Solar ejections can also disrupt radar systems, radio networks and can even render satellites useless, though such extremes are rare.

The images obtained by the Solar Orbiter show dozens of 'campfires' - blazes many millions of times smaller than solar flares - roiling the sun's surface.
The images obtained by the Solar Orbiter show dozens of 'campfires' - blazes many millions of times smaller than solar flares - roiling the sun's surface.
Image: Solar Orbiter/EUI/ESA/NASA/AFP
Solar Orbiter spots dozens of ‘campfires’ - such as the one indicated by the white arrow in this image - on the sun's surface.
Solar Orbiter spots dozens of ‘campfires’ - such as the one indicated by the white arrow in this image - on the sun's surface.
Image: Solar Orbiter/EUI/ESA/NASA/AFP

During its first orbit, the craft — developed in conjunction with NASA — travelled around 77 million kilometres from the surface, about half the distance between the sun and Earth.

Equipped to withstand temperatures as high as 500°C, it will eventually travel as close as 40 million kilometres from the surface, protecting its instruments with a heat-resistant structure that will be exposed to sunlight 13 times stronger than on Earth.

Its operators plan to gradually tilt the craft's orbit, enabling scientists to obtain the first ever images of the Sun's poles.

The Solar Orbiter mission and is set to last up to nine years at a cost of some $1.7 billion (about R28.3 billion).