A spacecraft orbiting the sun made its first close approach – and captured the encounter in great detail.
The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Solar Orbiter entered the close encounter, known as perihelion, on March 26, coming at a distance of about 48 million kilometers (30 million miles), within orbit Mercury.
At this proximity, temperatures reached around 500 °C (930 °F). In the future, perihelion is expected to get closer and hotter.
As it swirled around its orbit, the spacecraft saw the sun like we’ve never seen it before — including a fascinating and mysterious feature known as the “hedgehog,” and detailed views of usually hidden solar poles.
These new observations, taken with the Solar Orbiter’s ten scientific instruments working together for the first time, should provide a wealth of data to elicit the Sun’s behavior, including land magnetic fields, and the sometimes chaotic weather exploding in interplanetary space.
We’ve already seen a stunning high-resolution image of the spacecraft as it gets closer. The European Space Agency (ESA) has now released a video of the encounter, in order to see a solar probe of our gorgeous star.
The Solar Orbiter is set to make a huge difference in solar energy science, not least because it can show us parts of the sun that we wouldn’t normally see. For example, because of the advantage point of the Earth in orbit around the equator of the Sun, it is very difficult to study its poles; Only spacecraft orbiting and under the sun can see these areas.
Polar regions are thought to be very important regions for solar magnetic fields that play a large role in solar activity. However, because the poles are difficult to see, we don’t know what happens to the magnetic fields there. With its suite of instruments, the Solar Orbiter offers unprecedented insight into these mysterious regions.
Her view of the solar south pole on March 30 revealed a boiling region with twisted magnetic field lines projecting away from the sun.
The solar “hedgehog” is another charm. Also taken on March 30th, solar physicists have yet to discover what exactly it is and how it formed. It consists of a relatively small area about 25,000 km wide, which has been imaged with extreme ultraviolet radiation to detect activity in it.
And what’s the activity: Hot and less hot surges of solar gas protrude in all directions in the solar corona, or atmosphere, like the head of the solar bed.
“The pictures are really amazing” Heliophysicist David Bergmans says: Royal Observatory of Belgium.
“Even if the Solar Obiter stops taking data tomorrow, I’ll be busy for years trying to figure out all this stuff.”
The Solar Orbiter’s main goal is to help scientists understand the Sun’s influence on the entire heliosphere, or the field of solar influence defined by the solar wind, the limits of which lie outside of Pluto’s orbit. The solar wind blows particles and magnetic fields into interplanetary space, intertwining planets with tangible influences.
The closer the solar probe is to the sun, the better it can sample how the solar wind is blowing. As it neared perihelion, on March 21, it detected a flux of energetic particles, and even from such a distance, the discovery was revealing. The most active particles arrived first, followed by the least energetic particles. This indicates that the particles were not produced near the Solar Orbiter’s location, but rather near the surface of the Sun.
Other instruments have captured solar events that could have produced the particles, accelerating them into space, including solar flares and coronal mass ejections, not unlike the CME observed by the spacecraft on March 10, shown below.
The sun is currently fully active, which means the spacecraft will be transporting home absolute bucketloads of valuable data about solar activity. It has at least 14 additional perihelion points due before 2030, when it will swoop down nearly 40 million kilometers from the sun, using Venus flybys to increase its speed as it spins.
This first perihelion, rich in new data and observations, is a tantalizing taste of the coming solar fortune.
“We are very pleased with the quality of the data from the first perihelion,” Heliophysicist Daniel Muller says:ESA Solar Vehicle Project Scientist.
“It’s almost hard to believe that this is just the beginning of the mission. We will be very busy already.”
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