This week, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) released the closest images ever taken of the Sun. Close, however is a relative term. The new photos were taken by the Solar Orbiter at 48 million miles from the Sun.
The Orbiter was launched in February, and the photos captured were taken in June. They show a level of detail never before seen on the source of energy for our planet. Using an Extreme Ultraviolet Imager, the craft captured images of what scientists are calling “campfires,” mini-explosions, or nanoflares millions of times smaller than solar flares, that help heat the Sun’s outer atmosphere.
The camera on board was originally mounted just to provide feedback about the craft’s progression, so it was surprising to scientists that the images actually uncovered previously unknown details about our Sun.
The Solar Orbiter’s journey has not been without its challenges. In June, it had a run-in with comet ATLAS’s ion and dust tails. The pandemic also shut down mission control at the European Space Operations Center in Germany for more than a week. Despite the setbacks, the Orbiter plans to continue to capture information about the Sun, specifically its poles which flip every 11 years to begin a new cycle of solar activity. These flips can jeopardize power stations on Earth and could put astronauts in danger, so more information about these events is critical.
These images are not only intriguing and beautiful, they will also give astronauts needed information for the Artemis program missions to the Moon. Scientific knowledge is constantly expanding, and when it comes to our solar system, there is always more to learn and explore!