Closest Ever Images of the Sun Revealed by NASA and ESA, Scientists 'Amazed' at Quality

The closest images ever taken of the sun have been unveiled by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA)

The first images released by the Solar Orbiter mission—jointly operated by the two space agencies—have revealed ubiquitous features near the surface of our star that have never been seen before, dubbed "campfires." These miniature solar flares could shed light on one of the sun's most enduring unexplained phenomena—why the sun's outermost atmosphere is hotter than its surface.

"These images are closest images ever taken of the sun—and we have just started our long journey through the inner solar system," Daniel Müller, ESA's Solar Orbiter Project Scientist, told Newsweek.

"Ultimately, we will get closer to the sun than Mercury, the innermost planet. What has amazed us most is the very high quality of the first images taken, and the fact that the teams of all ten instruments onboard managed to complete their initial tests and calibrations on time, despite the challenges of COVID-19."

While NASA's Parker Solar Probe has traveled closer to the sun than the Orbiter, it is not equipped with telescopes that can image the star directly.

The images revealing the campfires were captured by an instrument known as the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) on May 30, when the Solar Orbiter was located around 48 million miles from the sun—around half the distance between Earth and the star. This was the first time the probe had reached perihelion—or its closest point to the sun in a given orbit.

Solar Orbiter’s first view Sun
The Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) on ESA’s Solar Orbiter spacecraft captured this image on May 30, 2020, showing the sun in the extreme ultraviolet region of the electromagnetic spectrum. Solar Orbiter/EUI Team ESA & NASA; CSL, IAS, MPS, PMOD/WRC, ROB, UCL/MSSL

"These are only the first images and we can already see interesting new phenomena," Müller said in a statement. "We didn't really expect such great results right from the start."

At present, it is unclear whether or not the campfires are produced by the same mechanisms that result in the far larger solar flares that can be observed from Earth, which can disrupt electrical grids and communications systems.

"The 'campfires' are possibly microscopic versions of solar flares, at least a million times fainter," Andrzej Fludra, from the U.K. Science and Technology Facilities Council's RAL Space, told Newsweek. "They present a bit of a mystery, but one which the instrument I have led on, SPICE, is well positioned to investigate." Fludra is the leader of the consortium that developed SPICE, the Orbiter's extreme ultraviolet imaging spectrometer.

Mission researchers think that studying these miniature flares with the Orbiter could help answer the question of whether they contribute to the heating of the sun's outermost layer, the corona, which is more than 300 times hotter than the surface at more than a million degrees Celsius. This mystery has puzzled solar scientists for decades.

"These campfires are totally insignificant each by themselves, but summing up their effect all over the sun, they might be the dominant contribution to the heating of the solar corona," Frédéric Auchère, Co-Principal Investigator of EUI, said in the statement.

Solar Orbiter, campfires, sun
A high-resolution image from the EUI taken on May 30, 2020. The circle in the lower right corner indicates the size of Earth for scale, while the arrow points to one of the ubiquitous features of the solar surface called "campfires" that have been revealed for the first time. Solar Orbiter/EUI Team ESA & NASA; CSL, IAS, MPS, PMOD/WRC, ROB, UCL/MSSL

Over the course of its mission, Solar Orbiter will provide the first views of the sun's uncharted polar regions, which will provide valuable insights into the our star's magnetic field, according to Müller.

The spacecraft will also collect data that will shed light on how intense radiation and energetic particles emitted by the sun have an impact on our planet. This could help us to better understand and predict stormy space weather that has the potential to disrupt electrical grids and communications systems on Earth.

In addition, the mission will provide researchers with a better understanding of the sun's heliosphere—a vast, bubble-like region encompassing the whole solar system that is generated by the solar wind, a stream of energized, charged particles flowing out of the star.

"Fundamentally, understanding the interrelation between the sun and the heliosphere is key to understanding how our solar system works," Müller told Newsweek.

solar orbiter, sun
This graphic summarizes the first images and data gathered by all instruments as the Solar Orbiter mission completed its commissioning phase. Solar Orbiter ESA & NASA

During its closest approach the Solar Orbiter, will experience temperatures of up to 970 degrees Fahrenheit. In order to withstand this extreme heat, the spacecraft has been designed around special heat shield that keeps the body of the probe, including its sensitive instruments, cooler than 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit.)

The Solar Orbiter spacecraft—which features six telescopes and four instruments that monitor the environment around the probe—was launched on February 10, 2020 and finished its commissioning phase in June, during which operators ran checks on the various systems. In total, the mission will last seven years, with the spacecraft making a close approach to the star every six months.