NASA and the European Space Agency have released the closest images ever taken of the Sun, revealing “campfires” scattered across its scorching surface.
The incredible snaps were captured by the Solar Orbiter probe last month as it soared within 47million miles of the Sun – about half the distance between Earth and our star.
Image Credits: Solar Orbiter will eventually swoop closer to the Sun’s surface than any space probe before itCredit: AFP or licensors
NASA’s Solar Orbiter probe has snapped the closest ever image of our starCredit: PA:Press Association.
Launched in February, the spacecraft will eventually swoop within 26million miles of the Sun’s surface, closer than any probe before it.
European and US scientists behind the mission said the orbiter’s first images shed new light on the Sun’s mysterious outer layers.
“The first images are exceeding our expectations,” said Dr Daniel Müller, Solar Orbiter Project Scientist at ESA.
“We can already see hints of very interesting phenomena that we have not been able to observe in detail before.”
Images released on Thursday show mini solar flares, called “campfires”, dotted across the Sun’s surface.
Solar flares are brief eruptions of high-energy radiation from the Sun’s surface, which can interfere with radio communications on Earth.
Dr Caroline Harper, head of space science at the UK space agency, said that experts were excited by the presence of campfires that are “millions of times smaller than solar flares“.
She said: “We do not really know what the campfires are doing but there is speculation that they might play a role in coronal heating, a mysterious process whereby the outer layer of the Sun, known as the corona, is around 300 times hotter than the layers below.
“These campfires may be contributing to that in a way we do not know yet.”
To find out more, scientists will monitor the temperatures of these campfires using an instrument on the spacecraft known as Spectral Imaging of the Coronal Environment, or SPICE.
Solar Orbiter snapped the images last month as it soared within 47million miles of the SunCredit: PA:Press Association
Aside from helping unlock the mysteries of coronal heating, the Solar Orbiter will also help scientists piece together the Sun’s atmospheric layers.
The probe will additionally analyse the solar wind, the stream of highly energetic particles emitted by the star.
Understanding more about solar activity could help scientists make predictions on space weather events.
These events can damage satellites and disrupt the infrastructure on Earth that mobile phones, transport, GPS signals and electricity networks rely on.
Dr Harper said: “The science will allow us to start improving our operational capability to predict the space weather, just like you predict the weather here on Earth.”
The spacecraft will repeatedly orbit the Sun, making a close approach every five months.
At its closest Solar Orbiter will only be 26million miles away, closer than the planet Mercury.
It will use the gravitational force of Venus and Earth to adjust its trajectory, before getting into operational orbit in November 2021.
Dr Harper said: “At that point, it will send back much more data about the Sun’s surface.
“It will also be flying over the poles of the Sun and take images.”
The Solar Orbiter was constructed by Airbus in Stevenage and blasted off from Nasa’s Cape Canaveral site in Florida on February 10.
British scientists are involved in four out of the ten instruments aboard the spacecraft.
It has been designed to withstand the scorching heat from the Sun that will hit one side, while maintaining freezing temperatures on the other side of the spacecraft as the orbit keeps it in shadow.
Experts says Solar Orbiters thick heat shield can withstand temperatures of up to 520C (900F).