Intense flares, incredible views of the solar poles, and an enigmatic solar “hedgehog” are among the spectacular images, videos, and data captured by Solar Orbiter on its first direct approach to the Sun.
the probe solar-orbiterdeveloped by the European Space Agency (ESA) with the collaboration of NASA, has obtained photos, films and information of the Sun with an unprecedented significance throughout human history: although the analysis of the data has barely begun, It’s clear that the mission is providing the most extraordinary insights yet into the Sun’s magnetic behavior and how it shapes space weather.
Video: Being so close to the Sun, the images and data obtained by Solar Orbiter were spectacular. The movie first shows the entire Sun, with magnetism pouring out from the star’s interior to trap glowing loops of coronal gas. Next, the video zooms into the HRI EUV telescope’s target region, where smaller-scale coronal loops can be seen. The color in this image has been artificially added because the original wavelength detected by the instrument is invisible to the human eye. Credit: ESA & NASA/Solar Orbiter/EUI Team.
An x-ray of our star
Solar Orbiter is a scientific satellite for solar observation: it was launched from Cape Canaveral on February 10, 2020, through the Atlas V rocket. Its priority objective is to make precise measurements of the magnetic field on the surface of our star, from radiation levels in the inner heliosphere, and from the solar wind.
At the same time, it seeks to make observations of the sun poles from high latitude orbits. The purpose of all these efforts is to understand the different factors that intervene in the mechanism by which the Sun controls the heliosphere, a key element that influences the space weather that affects the Earth and the rest of the planets of the Solar System. The heliosphere is the area of space that is under the influence of the solar wind and its magnetic field: it is made up of ions from the solar atmosphere and its extension exceeds the orbit of Pluto.
Solar Orbiter’s closest approach to the Sun, known as perihelion, took place on March 26. Solar Orbiter was within Mercury’s orbit, about a third of the distance between the Sun and Earth, while its heat shield reached 500 degrees Celsius. However, he managed to dissipate that heat with his innovative technology, thus keeping the spacecraft safe and operating.
The probe integrates a set of cutting-edge tools, which made this unprecedented view of the king star possible. Some are remote sensing instruments that face the Sun, while others are in-situ artifacts that monitor conditions around the spacecraft. This allows scientists to “join” the two points of view: what is happening on the Sun and what Solar Orbiter detects, from its position in the solar wind, millions of kilometers away from the star’s surface.
Video: The amazing energy of the Sun can be easily seen in this sequence of images that combine data from three instruments on the ESA/NASA Solar Orbiter spacecraft. It shows how a solar flare on March 25, 2022, one day before Solar Orbiter’s closest approach to the Sun, created a large disturbance in the Sun’s outer atmosphere, the solar corona, causing a large amount of gas to be ejected into space in a coronal mass ejection. Credits: ESA and NASA/Solar Orbiter/EUI, Metis and SoloHI.
Understanding space weather
In the case of perihelion, the remote sensing instrument captures details more accurately due to the closest approach achieved. According to a press release, on this occasion the spacecraft recorded several solar flares and even a coronal mass ejection directed at Earth.
According to scientists, this provides vital data for the space weather prediction in real time, an effort that is becoming increasingly important due to the threat that solar flares pose to infrastructure, communications, and life on Earth.