Solar Orbiter swings in the sun to unravel its mysteries


The spacecraft will come within 31 million miles (50 million kilometers) of the sun, less than a third of the distance between the star and Earth. This will bring Solar Orbiter inside the orbit of Mercury, the planet closest to the sun.

The European Space Agency, which is jointly managing the mission with NASA, will share the first images and data within weeks as it will take time to download and analyze everything collected during the flyby, according to ESA.

Solar Orbiter’s 10 instruments will operate simultaneously, ready to measure the solar wind and monitor mini flares, called campfires, that researchers spied in the first images from the mission in 2020. The spacecraft also carries telescopes to high resolution.

The data collected during the flyby could help scientists uncover some of the biggest remaining solar mysteries, including why and how the temperature is rising in the sun’s atmosphere.

Solar Orbiter will also capture high-resolution images of the sun and record the solar wind, an energized stream of particles moving away from the sun.

“From this point on, we are ‘entering the unknown’ with respect to Solar Orbiter observations of the Sun,” Solar Orbiter project scientist Daniel Müller said in a statement.

Stunning pictures

The latest images shared by Solar Orbiter offer a new perspective of the sun that captures unprecedented detail, including the highest resolution image ever taken of the sun’s outer atmosphere. The images were taken on March 7 as the spacecraft passed directly between Earth and the sun.

The spacecraft was midway between the two celestial bodies, about 46 million miles (74 million kilometers) from the sun.

The new image from Solar Orbiter shows the sun in extreme ultraviolet light.

One shot, taken using the Spectral Coronal Environment Imaging Instrument, called SPICE, is the first such bright sunlight image in 50 years presented in ultraviolet light.

Different wavelengths of light can help researchers study temperature differences between the solar surface and the solar corona, or outer atmosphere.

Powdered bones keep Solar Orbiter cool thanks to an Irish startup

The corona can reach one million degrees Celsius (1.8 million degrees Fahrenheit), while the surface is 5,000 degrees Celsius (9,000 degrees Fahrenheit). Solar Orbiter could help determine why the temperature appears to be moving away from the sun’s core, rather than falling.

This is just one of Solar Orbiter’s first close passes of the sun, with many more flybys planned to bring it closer and closer to the star in the years to come. Gradually, the spacecraft will increase its orientation to study the previously unseen polar regions of the sun.

Solar Orbiter is equipped with a multi-layer heat shield, a special coating called “Solar Black” made from burnt bones, sliding doors that protect its instruments, solar panels that can tilt away from the worst heat elements, and cooling inside the spaceship. Together, these keep the spacecraft from melting while it studies the sun.

Heat

The sun is becoming more active and Solar Orbiter has observed its solar tantrums.

A large solar flare erupted from the sun on March 2. The flare was classified as class M, the fourth strongest type of the five categories measuring the intensity of solar flares. A burst of that strength can cause brief radio blackouts at Earth’s poles and minor radiation storms that could endanger astronauts on the International Space Station, NASA says.

The Solar Orbiter’s Extreme Ultraviolet Imager captured video of the dramatic event.

Meanwhile, the Parker Solar Probe, which became the first spacecraft to “touch the sun” in late 2021, recently experienced the extremes of high solar prominence when the sun released tons of charged particles in the direction of Parker on February 15.
If solar flares and storms — like the massive February 15 flare (also captured by Solar Orbiter) or the solar storm that hit SpaceX’s Starlink satellites in February — seem to be happening more frequently, it’s because the sun is accelerating its activity as it heads towards solar maximum.

Understanding the solar cycle is important because space weather caused by the sun – flares like solar flares and coronal mass ejection events – can impact the power grid, satellites, GPS, airlines aircraft, rockets and astronauts in space.

Solar flare captured in unprecedented image
Every 11 years, the sun completes a solar cycle of calm and stormy activity and begins a new one. The current solar cycle, Solar Cycle 25, officially began in December 2019 and the next solar maximum, when the sun experiences peak activity, is expected to occur in July 2025.

During a solar cycle, the sun goes from a calm period to a very intense and active period. This activity is tracked by counting sunspots and how many are visible over time. Sunspots, or dark spots on the sun, are the origin of explosive flares and ejection events that release light, solar matter, and energy into space.

This puts Solar Orbiter and Parker Solar Probe in an ideal position to observe as we head towards solar maximum.


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