Solar Orbiter’s photos of the sun are as dramatic as you’d hoped

Credit: ESA

On March 26, the ESA’s Solar Orbiter came closest to the sun so far. It ventured into Mercury’s orbit and was about a third the distance from Earth to the sun. It was hot but worth it.

The primary mission of the Solar Orbiter is to understand the connection between the sun and its heliosphere, and to provide new images of the close approximation help build that understanding.

According to the ESA, the Solar Orbiter is the most complex scientific laboratory ever sent to the sun. It has a robust array of instruments, including a magnetometer, the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager, the Solar Wind Plasma Analyzer, and others. Its wide range of instruments allows it to observe solar events in multiple ways.

The spacecraft benefits from getting as close to the sun as possible. But getting close makes the Solar Orbiter hot. The spacecraft’s first line of defense is its heat shield† It is a multi-layer titanium device mounted on a honeycomb aluminum support, with carbon fiber skins designed to dissipate heat. Between all that and the spacecraft’s body are another 28 layers of insulation. During this approach, the heat shield reached 500 degrees Celsius (932 degrees Fahrenheit.)

Credit: ESA

Protected from the heat, the Solar Orbiter collected a lot of data on its approach. Scientists need more time to work with and understand it, but the images and videos are immediately captivating. One solar feature that caught everyone’s attention is the “space hedgehog.”

With a bit of luck, the sun put on a show as the Solar Orbiter approached. There were solar flares, and even a coronal mass ejection (CME) aimed at Earth. The Solar Orbiter has several remote sensing instruments, and scientists used them to predict when the CME would reach Earth. They released their prediction on social mediaand 18 hours later, terrestrial observers were prepared to witness the resulting aurora. ESA has released an image to explain how that went.

The following video features images of the solar flares and CME from three Solar Orbiter instruments: the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager, the Metis coronagraph, and SoloHI, the Solar Orbiter Heliospheric Imager.

Credit: ESA

The orbiter also gave us our highest-resolution image of the sun’s south pole.

Scientists are interested in the sun’s poles because of the way the sun’s magnetic fields work. The magnetic fields create the powerful but temporarily active regions on the sun’s surface, and the fields are swept up and down toward the poles before being swallowed up by the sun again. Scientists think they somehow act as seeds for the next solar activity. The detailed images of the sun’s south pole should help researchers understand how this all works.

In the video of the sun South Pole, the lighter regions are usually magnetic loops that rise from the interior of the sun. They are called closed magnetic field lines because it is difficult for particles to pass through them. Instead, the particles get trapped and emit extreme ultraviolet radiation, which the Solar Orbiter’s Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) is ready to capture.

The dark areas in the video are where the sun is magnetic field lines are open. Rather than being closed off to particles and trapping them, gases can escape into space from these dark regions. That creates solar wind.

The orbiter also captured images and data from a March 2 solar flare. The spacecraft’s Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) and X-ray Spectrometer/Telescope (STIX) instruments captured the eruption as atmospheric solar gases reached temperatures of about one million degrees C (1,8000,000 F) and radiated extreme ultraviolet energy and X -shine.

Credit: ESA

In the gif below, lower energy X-rays are shown in red and higher energy X-rays are shown in blue.

Credit: ESA & NASA/Solar Orbiter/EUI & STIX Teams

There’s a lot more to come from the Solar Orbiter. Over the next four years, the spacecraft will meet Venus for a fourth and fifth time. Each time it does this, it will increase its inclination, giving it a more direct view of the sun’s poles. By December 2026, it will orbit 24 degrees, marking the start of the spacecraft’s “high latitude” mission.

The Solar Orbiter’s Journey Around the Sun. Credit: ESA/ATG media lab

Those observations at large latitudes give scientists a view of the poles. The ESA says those views are key to untangling the complex magnetic polar environment of the sun. That could help unravel the mystery of the sun’s 11-year cycles.

“We are so excited about the quality of the data from our first perihelion,” said Daniel Müller, ESA project scientist for Solar Orbiter. “It’s hard to believe that this is just the beginning of the mission. We are going to be very busy indeed.”

Solar Orbiter crosses the Earth-Sun line on its way to the Sun

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