Spacecraft Launched by NASA, ESA Sends Back the Closest-ever Images of the Sun

Some photos were taken from 26 million miles away.

The European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA released the closest images of the sun ever taken on Thursday.

Captured by the Solar Orbiter, a spacecraft launched in collaboration by both agencies in February, these images could be the first step towards understanding the mysteries of the center of our solar system.The first images sent back to Earth were taken at a distance of about 48 million miles away from the sun. As it journeys through space, the orbiter passes Mercury, reaching a distance of about 26 million miles away from the sun. (For comparison, the Earth is about 93 million miles away.)

As the orbiter moves closer towards the sun, the images sent back to Earth will become more sharp and clear, revealing more previously unknown features of the sun.

“The first images are exceeding our expectations,” Daniel Müller, Solar Orbiter Project Scientist at ESA, said in a statement. “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.”

For the next year or so, the orbiter will be in its “cruise phase” to reach its destination. Its “science phase” is expected to begin in late 2021. Images and data collected in this time will be used to study the sun’s corona, which could then help scientists understand solar winds.

“These amazing images will help scientists piece together the Sun’s atmospheric layers, which is important for understanding how it drives space weather near the Earth and throughout the solar system,” Holly Gilbert, NASA project scientist for the mission, said in a statement.

Sun captured by Solar Orbiter
Courtesy of the ESA

Scientists are specifically looking at the sun’s electromagnetic field and the solar winds they emit. When solar storms occur, they can disrupt electrical equipment on Earth. But scientists don’t yet understand how they are formed or how they evolve. The photographs could help put together a data set that would one day allow scientists to predict solar storms, their behavior and their effects, much like other meteorological phenomena.

The first images have revealed patterns on the sun that scientists are calling “ghosts” or “campfires.”

These phenomena “are little relatives of the solar flares,” David Berghmans of the Royal Observatory of Belgium (ROB) explained. But they are not too little. The “campfires” are estimated to be “about the size of a European country,” Berghmans said during a press conference when the photos were released.

The smaller flares have proven to be the first of the new discoveries by the Solar Orbiter and scientists believe that more mysteries will be revealed over the coming years. The spacecraft is slated to be in orbit for 10 years.

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