A new record series of images of the sun captured by the Solar Orbiter probe during its close pass of the star in March has been released, revealing a plethora of never-before-seen details, including a curious geyser of gas that scientists have dubbed the “solar hedgehog”.
During the passwho took solar orbiter as close as one-third of the Sun-Earth distance, the spacecraft also sighted the sun’s south pole. It was the first time that a telescope, space or Earth-based, had captured such detailed images of this region of the Sunwhich scientists believe plays a key role in generating the solar magnetic field.
“The images are truly breathtaking,” said David Berghmans, solar physicist at the Royal Observatory of Belgium and lead scientist of the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager instrument on Solar Orbiter. in a report of the European Space Agency (ESA), which is leading the mission. “Even if Solar Obiter stopped taking data tomorrow, I would be busy for years trying to figure this all out.”
Related: Solar Orbiter spacecraft captures huge flare on sun (video)
The Extreme Ultraviolet Imager is responsible for the most stunning images captured by the spacecraft, which was launched in February 2020. The camera reveals in high resolution phenomena in the lower layers of the atmosphere of the sunthe region responsible for the generation of solar flares and coronal mass ejectionswhich are explosions of magnetized plasma from the outer atmosphere, known as a corona.
Among the never-before-seen phenomena captured around the nearby pass on March 26 was a strange geyser of hot and cold gas emanating from the sun’s surface in all directions that scientists dubbed the “solar hedgehog.”
Stretching 15,500 miles (25,000 kilometres), twice the diameter of Earth, the ‘hedgehog’ covers a small fraction of the sun’s diameter of 865,000 miles (1.4 million kilometres) but is much larger than the country-sized mini solar flares called campfire discovered during the spacecraft’s first close pass of the sun in June 2020. At that time, Solar Orbiter was still in the so-called commissioning phase and not in full science mode, and it only approached the star only halfway from the sun- Terrestrial distance.
“We are delighted with the data quality of our first perihelion [the closest point in a body’s orbit to the sun]“, Daniel Müller, Solar Orbiter project scientist at ESA, said in the statement. “It is almost hard to believe that this is only the beginning of the mission. We’re going to be really busy.”
Images of the sun’s south pole taken during the close pass are of particular interest to scientists studying the behavior of the sun and its 11 year duty cyclethe periodic ebb and flow of the generation of sunspots, flares and solar flares.
At the height of this cycle, the magnetic poles of the sun shift, magnetic north becoming south and vice versa, according to NASA. By measuring in detail what happens in the polar regions of the sun, solar physicists hope to unravel the mystery of this strange behavior.
The study of the solar poles is one of the essential tasks of the Solar Orbiter mission. In the final part of the mission, spacecraft operators will tilt the spacecraft’s orbit away from the ecliptic plane, in which the planets orbit, to allow it to have a more direct view of the poles, which has never been done before.
The close passage of March 26 came at a time of rather intense solar activity. The spacecraft was in the line of fire of multiple solar flares and a coronal mass ejection, which then triggered geomagnetic storms and radio blackouts on Earth.
“We’re always interested in big events because they produce the biggest responses and the most interesting physics, because you’re looking at the extremes,” said Robin Colaninno, solar physicist at the US Naval Research Laboratory, who developed the instrument. SoloHI PI. for Solar Orbiter, said in the statement.
Of the 10 instruments aboard Solar Orbiter, four measure the properties of solar particles that reach the spacecraft. Over the weeks around the close pass, the instruments detected several strange events that scientists are still analyzing. The researchers hope to be able to make connections between what cameras, like the EUI, see on the solar surface and what is happening in the environment around the star. Eventually, they would like to be able to predict in more detail the effects of these flares and coronal mass ejections on Earth.
Solar Orbiter will make its next close pass of the sun on October 13, only getting slightly closer to the star in March. This means that new record images can be expected. The spaceship previous close passes took place at about half the Sun-Earth distance.