A spacecraft tasked with studying the Sun at never-before-seen distances has managed to shape a never-before-seen image of the Sun in a historic achievement for space exploration. “We have never taken pictures of the Sun from a closer distance than this,” scientists boasted.
According to reports, the Solar Orbiter probe of the European Space Agency successfully completed its first close approach to the Sun, managing to get within no less than 77 million kilometers (around 47.8 million miles) from the surface of our star—which is approximately half the distance between our planet and the Sun.
As it made its way towards the Sun, its onboard cameras woke up and started snapping images of the Sun. This footage—which will be released in mid-July—is now considered the closest images of the Sun ever taken.
“We have never taken pictures of the Sun from a closer distance than this,” ESA’s Solar Orbiter Project Scientist Daniel Müller boasted in the statement.
Although we’ve taken some pretty neat images of the Sun and its surface from ground-based solar telescopes like the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope in Hawaii, the Solar Orbiter Probe from the ESA was able to take a much better picture from space, resulting in a clearer view of the star thanks to its position far from Earth’s atmosphere which obstructs the view.
“For the first time, we will be able to put together the images from all our telescopes and see how they take complementary data of the various parts of the Sun, including the surface, the outer atmosphere, or corona, and the wider heliosphere around it,” Müller revealed.
In addition to the never-before-seen images of the Sun, scientists on Earth will get a never-before-seen glimpse into the structure and composition of solar winds.
“For the in-situ instruments, this is not just a test, we are expecting new and exciting results,” Yannis Zouganelis, ESA’s Solar Orbiter Deputy Project Scientist, explained in the statement.
Although the Solar Orbiter is already making history, it will even get closer to the Sun than it currently is now. If all goes to plan, the spacecraft is expected to get as close as 42 million kilometers (26 million miles) to the Sun, which is a distance closer than Mercury.
NASA’s Parker Solar Probe mission, a spaceport that was sent out to study the Sun holds the record as the spacecraft that got the closest to the Sun ever when in November 2018, it approached the Sun at 24 million kilometers (15 million miles) from the surface.
The new images taken by the Solar Orbiter will take around seven days to arrive from the spacecraft to Earth, and will travel 134 million kilometers (83 million miles) back to Earth. After the data arrives at Earth, the images will be processed and then released for public view in mid-July.
“We have a nine-hour download window every day, but we are already very far from Earth, so the data rate is much lower than it was in the early weeks of the mission when we were still very close to Earth,” revealed Müller.
“In the later phases of the mission, it will occasionally take up to several months to download all the data because Solar Orbiter really is a deep space mission. Unlike near-Earth missions, we can store a lot of data onboard and downlink it when we are closer to home again, and the data connection is much better.”
Although NASA’s Spacecraft the Parker Solar Probe has a similar mission, unlike the Solar Orbiter of the ESA, it doesn’t carry a telescope capable of directly observing the Sun.