CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A European and NASA spacecraft has snapped the closest pictures ever taken of the sun, revealing countless little “campfires” flaring everywhere.
Scientists on Thursday released the first images taken by Solar Orbiter, launched from Cape Canaveral in February as part of a mission to study solar winds and flares that could have far-reaching impacts back on Earth.
The orbiter was about 48 million miles (77 million kilometers) from the sun — about halfway between Earth and the sun — when it took the stunning high-resolution pictures.
NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is flying much closer to the sun than Solar Orbiter — too close for cameras to safely photograph the star. Its lone camera faces away from the sun to observe the solar wind.
That’s why Solar Orbiter’s new pictures showing vibrant swirls of yellow and dark smoky gray — the first images from so close and at such small scale — are so precious. The team had to create a new vocabulary to name these tiny flare-ups, said European Space Agency project scientist Daniel Muller.
Muller described the observed multitude of “campfires” shooting into the corona, or sun’s crown-like outer atmosphere, as quite possibly “the tiny cousins of the solar flares that we already know.”
Millions if not billions of times smaller, these tiny flares may be heating the corona, he said, long known to be hundreds of times hotter than the actual solar surface for unknown reasons.
The Royal Observatory of Belgium’s David Berghmans, principal scientist of the instrument that captured the images, said he was blown away. He said his first response was: “This is not possible. It cannot be that good.”
“It was really much better than we expected, but what we dared to hope for,” Berghmans said.
These so-called campfires, Berghmans noted, are “literally everywhere we look.” Not yet well understood, they could be mini explosions, or nanoflares. More measurements are planned.
Berghmans said the campfires were several million times smaller than solar flares, which can be observed from Earth.
Nevertheless, the smallest the team observed still measured around 400 kilometers across — “about the size of a small European country,” said Berghmans.
“The Sun seems relatively calm on first viewing, but when you look at it in detail you can see miniature eruptions everywhere,” he added.
The $1.5 billion spacecraft will tilt its orbit as the mission goes on, providing unprecedented views of the sun’s poles. This vantage point should allow it to capture the first-ever pictures of the solar poles.
Sami Solanki, director of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, said the team was especially excited about images of the sun’s poles, which he described as “terra incognita.”
Solar Orbiter will get even closer to the sun in two years.
“This is just the beginning of the long epic journey of Solar Orbiter,” Muller said.
The pandemic has forced Solar Orbiter’s scientists to work from home for months. Only a few engineers are allowed at any one time inside the control center in Darmstadt, Germany.
Solar winds and flares emit billions of highly charged particles that impact planets, including Earth. But the phenomena remain poorly understood despite decades of research.
The largest solar storm on record hit North America in September 1859, knocking out much of the continent’s telegraph network and bathing the skies in an aurora viewable as far away as the Caribbean.
Solar ejections can also disrupt radar systems, radio networks and can even render satellites useless, though such extremes are rare.
During its first orbit, the craft — developed in conjunction with NASA — traveled around 77 million kilometers (48 million miles) from the surface, about half the distance between the sun and Earth.
Equipped to withstand temperatures as high as 500 degrees Celsius (930 Fahrenheit), it will eventually travel as close as 40 million kilometers from the sun’s surface, protecting its instruments with a heat-resistant structure that will be exposed to sunlight 13 times stronger than on Earth.
The Solar Orbiter mission is set to last up to nine years, at a cost of some 1.5 billion euros ($1.7 billion).