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See the Closest Ever Images of the Sun

See the Closest Ever Images of the Sun

Solar Orbiter just released its
first scientific data — including the closest images ever taken of the Sun.

Launched on February 9, 2020, Solar
Orbiter is a collaboration between the European Space Agency and NASA, designed
to study the Sun up close. Solar Orbiter completed its first close
pass of the Sun on June 15, flying
within 48 million miles of the Sun’s surface.

This is already closer to the
Sun than any other spacecraft has taken pictures (our Parker Solar Probe
mission has flown closer, but it doesn’t take pictures of the Sun). And over
the next seven years, Solar Orbiter will inch even closer to the Sun while tilting
its orbit above the plane of the planets, to peek at the Sun’s north and south
poles, which have never been imaged before.

Here’s some of what Solar
Orbiter has seen so far.

The Sun
up close


Solar Orbiter’s Extreme
Ultraviolet Imager, or EUI, sees the Sun in wavelengths of extreme ultraviolet
light that are invisible to our eyes.


EUI captured images showing “campfires”
dotting the Sun. These miniature bright spots are over a million times smaller
than normal solar flares. They may be the nanoflares, or tiny explosions, long thought
to help heat the Sun’s outer atmosphere, or corona, to its temperature 300
times hotter than the Sun’s surface. It will take more data to know for sure,
but one thing’s certain: In EUI’s images, these campfires are all over the Sun.


The Polar and Helioseismic
Imager, or PHI, maps the Sun’s magnetic field in a variety of ways. These
images show several of the measurements PHI makes, including the magnetic field
strength and direction and the speed of flow of solar material.

PHI will have its heyday later
in the mission, as Solar Orbiter gradually tilts its orbit to 24 degrees above
the plane of the planets, giving it a never-before-seen view of the poles. But
its first images reveal the busy magnetic field on the solar surface.


Solar Orbiter’s instruments don’t just focus on the
Sun itself — it also carries instruments that study the space around the Sun
and surrounding the spacecraft.


The Solar and Heliospheric Imager, or SoloHi, looks out the side of the Solar Orbiter spacecraft to see the solar wind, dust, and cosmic rays that fill the space between the Sun and the planets. SoloHi captured the relatively faint light reflecting off interplanetary dust known as the zodiacal light, the bright blob of light in the right of the image. Compared to the Sun, the zodiacal light is extremely dim – to see it, SoloHi had to reduce incoming sunlight by a trillion times. The straight bright feature on the very edge of the image is a baffle illuminated by reflections from the spacecraft’s solar array.


This first data release
highlights Solar Orbiter’s images, but its in situ instruments also revealed
some of their first measurements. The Solar Wind Analyser, or SWA instrument, made
the first dedicated
measurements of heavy ions — carbon, oxygen, silicon, and iron — in the solar
wind from the inner heliosphere.

Read more about Solar Orbiter’s
first data and see all the images on ESA’s website.

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