Closest ever image of Sun reveals mysterious solar pole in breathtaking detail

Closest ever image of Sun reveals mysterious solar pole in breathtaking detail

The orbiter with its suite of instruments is trying to provide unprecedented insight into how our local star ‘works’.

The European Space Agency's Solar Orbiter snapped the Sun on March 26 this year during its closest approach to the star. Analysis of the data haul reveals powerful flares, breathtaking views across the solar poles, and a curious solar ‘hedgehog’ in the images and videos beamed back to Earth.

During its closest approach to the Sun earlier this year, the spacecraft was inside the orbit of Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun, at about one-third the distance from the Sun to the Earth as the heatshield gained temperatures above 500 degrees Celcius. However, human ingenuity kept the 10 science instruments behind it cold as a cucumber.

The orbiter with its suite of instruments is trying to provide unprecedented insight into how our local star ‘works’. ESA said that the closer the spacecraft gets to the Sun, the finer the details the remote sensing instrument can see. During the close approach, the spacecraft also witnessed solar flares and even an Earth-directed coronal mass ejection, providing a taste of real-time space weather forecasting.

The orbiter captured a mysterious phenomenon on the solar pole, which scientists have named the hedgehog. The phenomenon was captured by the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) instrument, which takes high-resolution images of the lower layers of the Sun's atmosphere, known as the solar corona.

At present no one knows exactly what it is or how it formed in the Sun’s atmosphere. “The images are really breathtaking, says David Berghmans, Principal Investigator (PI) of the EUI. Scientists say that this phenomenon will keep them busy for years as it stretches 25,000 kilometers across the Sun and has a multitude of spikes of hot and colder gas that reach out in all directions.

The phenomenon is twice the diameter of Earth and covers a small fraction of the sun's diameter of 1.4 million kilometers. The understanding of the solar pole could shed light on the 11-year-long solar cycle and the activities that dominate these periods, including solar flares, sunspots, and CMEs.

During the close pass, the Orbiter was in the line of fire as it witnessed solar flares and coronal mass ejections, which were directed toward Earth triggered geomagnetic storms on Earth that caused radio blackouts.

“We’re always interested in the big events because they produce the biggest responses and the most interesting physics because you are looking at the extreme," says Robin Colaninno, U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, Washington DC, and SoloHI PI.

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The spacecraft was hit by a Coronal Mass Ejection on March 10 giving it a unique opportunity to monitor the conditions of the solar wind and the team was able to predict when it would subsequently hit Earth. This experience gave Solar Orbiter a taste of what it is like to forecast the space weather condition on Earth in real-time.

WHAT'S NEXT?

The Solar Orbiter is now preparing for its next dive going closer than ever to its destination. the spacecraft is racing through space to line itself up for its next and slightly closer perihelion pass on October 13. During the pass, the probe will be 0.29 times the Earth-Sun distance

“We are so thrilled with the quality of the data from our first perihelion. “It’s almost hard to believe that this is just the start of the mission. We are going to be very busy indeed,” Daniel Müller, ESA Project Scientist for Solar Orbiter said in a statement.

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