Solar Orbiter is a multinational collaboration between the European Space Agency or ESA, and NASA, to examine the nearest star, the Sun. Initiated on Feb. 9, 2020 (EST), the spacecraft obtained its first near pass of the Sun in mid-June.

The European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Germany regulates Solar Orbiter. Solar Orbiter was created by Airbus Defense and Space and includes 10 instruments: nine given by European Space Agency (ESA) member nations and ESA. NASA provided one instrument, SoloHI, hardware and sensors for three other instruments, and the Atlas V 411 launch vehicle. The European Space Astronomy Centre (ESAC) in Spain administers the science processes.

As it flew within 77248512 kilometres of the Sun, all 10 instruments flicked on, and Solar Orbiter caught the nearest pictures of the Sun to date. (Other spacecraft have been near, but none have transmitted Sun-facing images.)

Solar Orbiter carries six imaging instruments, each of which analyses a distinct element of the Sun. Generally, the first images from a spacecraft confirm the instruments are working; scientists don’t expect new discoveries from them. But the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager, or EUI, on Solar Orbiter, returned data hinting at solar outlines never identified in such detail.

“These unprecedented pictures of the Sun are the closest we have ever obtained,” said Holly Gilbert, NASA project scientist for the mission at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “These amazing images will help scientists piece together the Sun’s atmospheric layers, which is important for understanding how it drives space weather near the Earth and throughout the solar system.”

“We didn’t expect such great results so early,” said Daniel Müller, ESA’s Solar Orbiter project scientist. “These images show that Solar Orbiter is off to an excellent start.”

Principal investigator David Berghmans, an astrophysicist at the Royal Observatory of Belgium in Brussels, points out what he calls “campfires” dotting the Sun in EUI’s images.

“The campfires we are talking about here are the little nephews of solar flares, at least a million, perhaps a billion times smaller,” Berghmans said. “When looking at the new high-resolution EUI images, they are literally everywhere we look.”

It’s not yet obvious what these campfires are or how they conform to solar brightenings observed by other spacecraft. But it’s reasonable they are mini-explosions known as nanoflares – tiny but everywhere sparks theorized to help heat the Sun’s outer atmosphere, to its temperature 300 times hotter than the solar surface as well as Images from the Polar and Helioseismic Imager, or PHI, indicated it is also prepared for later observations. PHI maps the Sun’s magnetic field, with an outstanding focus on its poles.

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