The ESA has published a series of breathtaking videos of what Solar Orbiter saw as it approached the Sun. The European Space Agency also published the Solar Orbiter's highest resolution photograph of the Sun's South Pole Pillars.
Solar Orbiter’s first close approach to the Sun revealed spectacular images, movies, and data, including powerful flares, stunning views across the solar poles, and a curious solar hedgehog. The ESA-led mission’s analysis of the data is just beginning, but already there are a number of remarkable insights into the Sun’s magnetic behavior and what this means for space weather.
Solar Orbiter’s closest approach to the Sun took place on 26 March. The spacecraft was in Mercury’s orbit, one-third of the distance between the Sun and Earth, and the heat shield built to protect the spacecraft measured temperatures around 500°C. Its innovative technology dissipated this heat and kept the spacecraft safe and functioning despite this scorching temperature.
A total of ten instruments are onboard the Solar Orbiter – nine led by member states of the European Space Agency (ESA) and one by NASA – and they all work together to provide unprecedented insight into our local star’s operations.
The Solar Orbiter has onboard sensors that observe the Sun remotely and in-situ instruments that measure the conditions at its location in the solar wind millions of kilometers from the Sun. This enables scientists to link what they see happening at the Sun with what it feels at its location in the solar wind millions of kilometers from the Sun.
When the spacecraft gets closer to the Sun during perihelion, more fine details are visible using the remote sensing instrument.
In addition to observing several solar flares, the Solar Orbiter also observed a coronal mass ejection heading toward Earth, enabling researchers to calculate real-time space weather forecasts, a task that is becoming increasingly important since space weather threatens technology and astronauts. Solar Orbiter also snapped photographs of comets.
“The images are really breathtaking,” expressed David Berghmans, Royal Observatory of Belgium, and the Principal Investigator (PI) of the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) instrument.
The EUI is tasked with snapping high-resolution images of the lower layers of the Sun’s atmosphere, a region dubbed the solar corona. According to experts, it is in this region where most solar activity related to space weather takes place, which is why this is a region of high interest for researchers.
For the EUI team, the next step is to comprehend what they are seeing. The Solar Orbiter reveals a great deal of activity on the Sun at a very small scale, so this is no easy task. When they observe a feature or event that they cannot recognize, they need to check previous solar observations by other space missions to determine if they have seen something similar in the past.
“Even if Solar Obiter stopped taking data tomorrow, I would be busy for years trying to figure all this stuff out,” says David Berghmans.
A noteworthy feature was observed during this perihelion. This feature has been referred to as the hedgehog. Its diameter is 25 000 km, and it contains spikes of hot and cold gases radiating in all directions — hence its name.
The primary science objective of the Solar Orbiter is to study the connection between the Sun and the heliosphere. The heliosphere extends beyond the planets of our Solar System and is best described as a giant cosmic bubble.
The solar wind is primarily made up of electrically charged particles that have been emitted from the Sun. As a result of their movement and the magnetic fields associated with the sun, these particles cause space weather.
In order to get the entire picture of the effects the Sun has on the Heliosphere, researchers will need to trace back the results from the in-situ instruments that recorded the particles and magnetic fields to events on or near the surface of the sun. These events are recorded using remote sensing.
Due to the complex magnetic environment around the Sun, it is not an easy task to track particle events back to the Sun along the ‘highways’ of magnetic field lines. However, the closer the spacecraft can get to the Sun, the easier it is. So far, the results of the first perihelion seem very promising for Solar Orbiter.
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