The mission, a joint effort of NASA and the European Space Agency, captured images of powerful flares and coronal mass ejections and perspectives from the unexplored solar poles. the orbiter even spied a new feature nicknamed the “hedgehog.”
Scientists have just started analyzing the full data set captured by the orbiter’s 10 science instruments, but the insights will deepen our understanding of the sun’s behavior and how it affects the space weather, which affects Earth.
The sun is getting more active and Solar Orbiter has been watching its tantrums as the sun moves towards the sun’s maximum.
Understanding the solar cycle is important because space weather caused by the sun — eruptions such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections — can affect the power grid, satellites, GPS, airlines, rockets and astronauts in space.
In the course of a solar cycle, the sun moves from a quiet period to one that is very intense and active. This activity is tracked by counting sunspots and how many are visible over time. Sunspots, or dark spots on the sun, are the starting point for the explosive eruptions and ejection events that release light, solar material and energy into space.
This puts Solar Orbiter, and another mission called Parker Solar Probe, in a perfect position to watch as we move toward the sun’s maximum.
As Solar Orbiter creates detailed new images of the sun, scientists try to determine what they see by comparing them to previous solar observations from past missions to determine whether they are known features or unknown phenomena. One of these unexpected finds has been dubbed “the hedgehog,” a feature that extends 15,000 miles (25,000 kilometers) from the sun and has peaks of hot and cold gas.
Currently, there is no explanation for what it is or how it formed in the sun’s atmosphere.
Solar Orbiter also captured a movie of an active region on the sun where the magnetic field releases loops that rise into the atmosphere. Gas moves around the loops, cooling and creating “coronal rain” on the sun’s surface. The scientific team also saw “coronal moss,” where bright gas creates lacy patterns on the sun.
“The images are truly breathtaking,” David Berghmans, principal investigator of the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager instrument at the Royal Observatory of Belgium, said in a statement. “Even if Solar Orbiter stopped collecting data tomorrow, I’d be spending years figuring all these things out.”
Unraveling solar mysteries
The Solar Orbiter mission is designed to study the sun’s outer atmosphere, called the corona, and determine how the sun interacts with the heliosphere, a bubble full of charged particles released by the sun that extend beyond the planets. our solar system extends. Space weather occurs when the sun releases its stream of charged particles called the solar wind, as well as activity through the solar magnetic fields.
The corona can reach one million degrees Celsius (1.8 million degrees Fahrenheit), while its surface is 5,000 degrees Celsius (9,000 degrees Fahrenheit). Solar Orbiter could help determine why the temperature of the sun’s core appears to be rising instead of falling.
The spacecraft’s instruments record data from the solar wind and magnetic fields and attempt to trace them back to their origin through the complex, magnetic environment and back to the sun. Each instrument is responsible for observing and recording different aspects of the sun. Combining these insights could one day be used to help scientists predict space weather from Earth.
Leading up to the near-flyby, Solar Orbiter was essentially upstream from Earth, observing solar wind and coronal mass ejections that could be headed toward Earth. By sending data back in real time at the speed of light, stargazers were warned to keep an eye out for auroras on Earth.
But monitoring space weather in this way could also help us better protect our technology infrastructure and even astronauts on the International Space Station. A future ESA mission, Vigil, will eventually be placed at a point to one side of the sun and observe coronal mass ejections on their way to Earth.
Solar Orbiter is now moving into position for a third flight past Venus in September and the Sun’s next close pass in October.
More flybys will bring the spacecraft closer and closer to the star in the coming years. Gradually, the spacecraft will increase its orientation to study the sun’s polar regions more directly than ever before.
This never-before-seen image of the poles could help scientists understand the sun’s complex polar magnetic environment, which could reveal the true heart of the solar cycle.
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