When the Solar Orbiter spacecraft made its closest flyby of the sun yet in March this year, it collected vast amounts of data from which we can learn more about our star. The European Space Agency, which is leading the mission in conjunction with NASA, has shared a series of documents from the preliminary analysis of this data, including the highest resolution image of the sun’s south pole captured to date. :
This footage was taken by Solar Orbiter’s Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) instrument on March 30, 2022, as the spacecraft had just passed its closest point to the sun so far. The sun’s poles have rarely been studied because they are difficult to see, but they can be crucial to understanding the sun’s magnetic field.
Other aspects of the sun’s activities are also revealed, such as the relationship between the 1 million degree Celsius hot gas loops captured by EUI and the magnetic fields that shape them. “Nobody has ever seen the details of the crown in such detail before, so every time we get an image, it’s the first time we’ve seen something on this large scale. And it’s really fascinating” , said the principal investigator of the EUI instrument, David Berghmans, in a video published by ESA.
This image showing the gas loops was captured alongside data from the Polarimetric and Helioseismic Imager (PHI) instrument which records magnetic activity. By comparing the two, researchers can see how magnetic activity on the sun’s surface, called the photosphere, pulls gas into loops that extend away from the surface and into space.
This is the process that underlies dramatic solar events such as flares and coronal mass ejections, when hot plasma is fired from the sun. This in turn has effects throughout the solar system, in a phenomenon called space weather. Researchers hope that Solar Orbiter data can be used not only to understand the sun, but also to predict this space weather.
“Solar Orbiter is essentially a research mission, but ultimately we want to be able to predict space weather,” project scientist Daniel Müller explained in the video. “These are energetic events that could impact high-tech facilities on Earth, such as GPS satellites or power grids. We want to make sure that in the future we can predict geomagnetic storms based on solar activity. And for that, we really need to take the temperature of the sun and measure the solar wind and connect the two.
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