The Solar orbiter, which is a joint project of NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) has sent its first photos of the Sun, with which scientists have identified a new phenomenon they’re calling ‘campfires’. The first photos have been a bit delayed because ESA had paused the spacecraft’s commissioning process due to limited staff during the initial spread of COVID-19. However, ESA soon resumed the commissioning in preparation for the spacecraft’s first loop around the Sun.
“To be honest, I didn’t dare to expect anything,” David Berghmans, a space physicist at the Royal Observatory of Belgium, and principal investigator of one of the instruments onboard Solar Orbiter, said during a news conference.
“It’s amazing in the smallest details how much stuff is going on there,” Berghmans said. “We couldn’t believe it when we first saw this and we started giving it crazy names like campfires and dark fibrils and ghosts and whatever we saw. There is so much new small phenomena going on on the smallest scale.”
At the time the solar orbiter took these photos, it was within 77 million kilometres of the Sun. This is around half the distance at which Earth orbits. NASA and ESA claim that by the end of the mission, the orbiter will halve this distance.
Scientists state that these bursts, that are being called campfires, are tiny relative to the Sun. However, to put it in measure for the people, the smallest of these campfires are as big as the size of a European country.
The scientists have said that they are currently not sure if these campfires are solar flares or are they a work of a different phenomenon. They added, that by studying this, they will be able to solve one of the key mysteries of the sun; why the outer atmosphere (corona) is hotter than the visible areas of the Sun. The visible surface of the Subnbn is about 99,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the corona is at a million degrees. Scientists have been confused with this for long, as the corona should be cooler as it is farther away from the fusion furnace inside the sun.
The Parker Solar Probe will be flying much closer to the sun when compared to the Solar Orbiter. However, it does not carry any telescopic equipment. It only carries equipment to measure the Sun’s environment. The Sun is currently at the quietest point of its 11-year activity cycle, which is why the Orbiter should have much more energetic phenomena to study as the mission progresses.
Scientists state that the Orbiter will provide better photos and will help with many new discoveries as time passes. “Remember that the current data that we are showing today are merely byproducts of technical tests that we were doing, in these images the instruments are not fully configured yet,” Berghmans said.
The Solar Orbiter is continuing its cruise towards the Sun as you read, with its local instruments working continuously to take measurements and photos of the Sun. The Orbiter will gradually loop closer to the sun over the course of a few years. In 2025, the Orbiter will leave the main plane of the solar system and enter into a tilted orbit that will allow it to image the sun’s poles in detail.
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