NASA and the ESA revealed the first images of the Sun from its Solar Orbiter joint mission, providing an unprecedented look at our star. The images have revealed a new mystery that scientists have named ‘campfires’ — this refers to miniature solar flares on the Sun described by ESA as ‘omnipresent.’
ESA says the early technical verification phase of the mission knowtn as commissioning has been completed, meaning Solar Orbiter is just getting started. Despite this early stage, the mission has already revealed new phenomena, underscoring the promising results the space agencies anticipate from their joint spacecraft.
Solar Orbiter was launched in February 2020 with the goal of, among other things, capturing images of the Sun at the closest distance thus far attainable. The mission includes half a dozen remote-sensing telescopes and four in situ monitoring instruments for studying the environment around Solar Orbiter.
Data gathered by both sets of instruments will, hopefully, provide scientists with new insights about the star and solar wind. Kicking things off are the ‘campfires’ featured in the first set of images above. Solar Orbiter used its Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) instrument to capture the images — it includes an imager capable of capturing the entire Sun, plus two high-resolution telescopes.
It’s unknown at this time whether campfires are entirely different than big flares or simply miniature versions of them. Talking about the newly discovered phenomena is EUI instrument principal investigator David Berghmans, who said:
The campfires are little relatives of the solar flares that we can observe from Earth, million or billion times smaller. The Sun might look quiet at the first glance, but when we look in detail, we can see those miniature flares everywhere we look.
The EUI is only one of the imagers on Solar Orbiter; it is joined by the Polarimetric and Helioseismic Imager (PHI) used to capture high-resolution measurements of the Sun’s magnetic field lines. The latter instrument has also provided scientists with another ‘first,’ having revealed a single active region on the Sun that is experiencing bursts of energetic particles that, until now, experts were unaware existed.
‘That is a first,’ said PHI principal investigator Sami Solanki. ‘We have never been able to measure the magnetic field at the back of the Sun.’
In time, Solar Orbiter will reach within 42 million kilometers (26 million miles) of the Sun, covering almost a full quarter of the distance between the star and our planet. This gradual change in distance will take place over the next two years, providing the space agencies with increasingly detailed close-up images of the Sun.
NASA Solar Orbiter project scientist Holly Gilbert said, ‘The first data are already demonstrating the power behind a successful collaboration between space agencies and the usefulness of a diverse set of images in unraveling some of the Sun’s mysteries.’