- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 16, 2020

NASA and the European Space Agency on Thursday released to the public the closest-ever photos of the sun.

The photos were taken by the Solar Orbiter satellite as part of a joint NASA-ESA mission.

The photos, which show a roiling mass of light and dark areas, were taken about 48 million miles away from the surface, about half the distance between the Earth and the sun.

“These unprecedented pictures of the sun are the closest we have ever obtained,” said Holly Gilbert, 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.”

The satellite, launched on Feb. 9, made its first close pass of the sun in mid-June.



NASA’s Parker Solar Probe and other spacecraft have flown closer to the sun, but none of them could snap images.

Using 10 instruments, including six imaging devices, the Solar Orbiter captured features never observed in such detail.

David Berghmans, an astrophysicist at the Royal Observatory of Belgium in Brussels and principal investigator, pointed out what he called “campfires” dotting the sun.

The multitude of campfires shooting into the corona, the sun’s crownlike outer atmosphere, could be “the tiny cousins of the solar flares that we already know,” ESA project scientist Daniel Muller told The Associated Press.

Scientists theorize that these miniature explosions, known as nanoflares, could help heat the sun’s outer atmosphere, which is 300 times hotter than its surface.

To test the theory, scientists need a more precise measurement of the campfires’ temperature, which an instrument on the Solar Orbiter can obtain, NASA said.

The satellite also caught images of zodiacal light, which reflects off faint interplanetary dust that is usually obscured by the brightness of the sun.

To see the zodiacal light, an imager on the Solar Orbiter had to dim the sun’s light to one-trillionth of its brightness, NASA said.

The $1.5 billion spacecraft will tilt its orbit to 24 degrees above the planes of planets as the mission progresses, allowing it to snap the first pictures of the sun’s poles.

The Solar Orbiter has been set on a series of loops around the sun to gradually bring it to less than 26.7 million miles from the surface and inside the orbit of Mercury, the BBC reported.

The pictures shared with the public Thursday reportedly were taken from inside the orbit of Venus.

NASA said the COVID-19 pandemic hampered the mission somewhat. Scientists had to work from home, and mission control at the space operations center in Darmstadt, Germany, were shut down for more than a week.

In 2018, the Parker Solar Probe broke the record for the closest approach to the sun when it passed 26.55 million miles from the surface. The German-American Helios 2 spacecraft set the previous record in April 1976.

As its mission continues, the Parker Solar Probe is expected to break its own records by approaching 3.83 million miles from the sun’s surface before making its last orbit in 2024.

χ This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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