- NASA’s Solar Orbiter, a mission in partnership with the European Space Agency, made its first close observations of the star.
- The spacecraft is about halfway between Earth and the Sun, and it will return photos of the star’s surface that could answer hot questions.
- NASA’s Parker solar probe is much closer to the sun but has no imaging capabilities.
Exploring and observing the various other planets in our solar system is sharp and everything, but nothing (or us) would be here without the Sun. Despite this, we know relatively little about our nearest star, and in recent years astronomers have been eager to change that. A joint mission between NASA and the European Space Agency sent the Solar Orbiter on a trip to take close-up and personal photos of the star, and it has just made its very first close-pass.
As the European Space Agency explains in a new blog post, the flyby took place just over 47 million kilometers from the surface of the star. It’s about halfway between Earth and the Sun, but it’s close enough to allow the spacecraft to capture images with higher resolution than ever before.
Understanding how the sun ticks is a complicated task. Observing the Sun from our point of view on Earth allows us to learn some things about it, but there are still many mysteries. Learning about the processes that fuel its incredible energy production and its visible surface characteristics like sunspots and coronal mass ejections means getting as close as possible without destroying the sensitive equipment that can exploit its secrets.
Observing the Sun from the surface of our planet poses additional problems, largely due to the Earth’s atmosphere. “We have never taken pictures of the Sun at a distance as close as this,” ESA scientist Daniel Müller said in a statement. “There were higher resolution close-ups, such as the four-meter Daniel K. Inouye solar telescope in Hawaii earlier this year. But from Earth, with the atmosphere between the telescope and the Sun, you can only see a small part of the solar spectrum that you can see from space. ”
NASA’s Parker solar probe made several close passes to the Sun during its current mission, and is much closer to the star’s surface than the Solar Orbiter. However, the probe is not equipped with imaging capabilities and is designed to return readings and sensor data rather than photos. NASA’s observatory for solar dynamics can take clear pictures of the sun, but it is much farther away than the Solar Orbiter at the moment.
“Our ultraviolet imaging telescopes have the same spatial resolution as those of NASA’s Solar Dynamic Observatory (SDO), which takes high-resolution images of the Sun from an orbit close to Earth,” says Müller. “Because we are currently half the distance from the Sun, our images have twice the SDO resolution during this perihelion. ”
In the near future, the orbiter will return its data to Earth, allowing scientists (and us) to glimpse the Sun in a way we have never seen before.