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Sept. 24, 2020

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Spacecraft snaps closest pictures ever of sun; ‘campfires’ abound

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The Extreme Ultraviolet Imager on ESA's Solar Orbiter spacecraft took this image on May 30.
The Extreme Ultraviolet Imager on ESA's Solar Orbiter spacecraft took this image on May 30. (European Space Agency) Photo Gallery

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A European and NASA spacecraft has snapped the closest pictures ever taken of the sun, revealing countless little “campfires” flaring everywhere.

Scientists released the first images taken by Solar Orbiter, launched from Cape Canaveral in February.

The orbiter was about 48 million miles from the sun — about halfway between Earth and the sun — when it took the stunning high-resolution pictures in May.

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is flying much closer to the sun than Solar Orbiter — too close for cameras to safely photograph the sun. Its lone camera faces away from the sun to observe the solar wind.

That’s why Solar Orbiter’s new pictures showing vibrant swirls of yellow and dark smoky gray — the first images from so close and at such small scale — are so precious. The team had to create a new vocabulary to name these tiny flare-ups, said European Space Agency project scientist Daniel Muller.

Muller described the observed multitude of “campfires” shooting into the corona, or sun’s crown-like outer atmosphere, as quite possibly “the tiny cousins of the solar flares that we already know.” Millions if not billions of times smaller, these tiny flares may be heating the corona, he said, long known to be hundreds of times hotter than the actual solar surface for unknown reasons.

The Royal Observatory of Belgium’s David Berghmans, principal scientist of the instrument that captured the images, said he was blown away. He said his first response was: “This is not possible. It cannot be that good.”

“It was really much better than we expected, but what we dared to hope for,” Berghmans said.

These so-called campfires, Berghmans noted, are “literally everywhere we look.” Not yet well understood, they could be mini explosions, or nanoflares. More measurements are planned.

The $1.5 billion spacecraft will tilt its orbit as the mission goes on, providing unprecedented views of the sun’s poles.

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