Thursday, July 16th 2020, 12:10 pm - "When the first images came in, my first thought was, 'This is not possible - it can't be that good.'"
What are called 'campfires', annotated with white arrows, are seen in a combination the closest images ever obtained of the Sun, made by the Solar Orbiter spacecraft and released by NASA July 16, 2020. Solar Orbiter/EUI Team (ESA & NASA); CSL, IAS, MPS, PMOD/WRC, ROB, UCL/MSSL/Handout via REUTERS.
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A solar probe built by the European Space Agency and NASA has delivered the closest photos ever taken of the Sun's surface, revealing a landscape rife with thousands of tiny solar flares that scientists dubbed "campfires" and offering clues about the extreme heat of the outermost part of its atmosphere.
"When the first images came in, my first thought was, 'This is not possible - it can't be that good,'" David Berghmans, principal investigator for the Solar Orbiter spacecraft's ultraviolet imager at the Royal Observatory of Belgium, told reporters on Thursday.
A high-resolution image of the Sun from the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) taken with the HRIEUV telescope on NASA/ESA?s Solar Orbiter spacecraft taken on May 30, 2020 and released by ESA July 16, 2020. The circle in the lower left corner indicates the size of Earth for scale. The arrow points to one of the features of the solar surface, called 'campfires'. Solar Orbiter/EUI Team/ESA & NASA; CSL, IAS, MPS, PMOD/WRC, ROB, UCL/MSSL/Handout via REUTERS.
The spacecraft, launched from Florida in February, snapped the images in late May using the probe's Extreme Ultraviolet Imager as it orbited nearly 48 million miles (77 million km) from the Sun's surface, or roughly halfway between the Sun and Earth.
The "campfires" are believed to be tiny explosions, called nanoflares, and could explain why the Sun's outer shield, the corona, is 300 times hotter than the star's surface. Scientists are awaiting more data from the spacecraft's other instruments to know for sure.
A close-up image taken with the Polarimetric and Helioseismic Imager (PHI) High Resolution Telescope on NASA/ESA?s Solar Orbiter spacecraft shows the Sun's granulation pattern that results from the movement of hot plasma under the Sun's visible surface taken on May 28, 2020 and released by ESA July 16, 2020. Solar Orbiter/PHI Team/ESA & NASA/Handout via REUTERS.
"We've never been closer to the Sun with a camera, and this is just the beginning of the long epic journey of Solar Orbiter," said Daniel Müller, ESA's Solar Orbiter project scientist.
Scientists typically have relied upon Earth-based telescopes for closeups of the Sun's surface. But Earth's atmosphere limits the amount of visible light needed to glean views as intimate as those obtained by the Solar Orbiter.
The spacecraft also carries plasma-sampling instruments to offer researchers further data.
Images of the Sun taken with Polarimetric and Helioseismic Imager (PHI) and Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) of the Solar Orbiter spacecraft are seen in a combination of photographs released by NASA July 16, 2020. Solar Orbiter/EUI Team; PHI Team/ESA & NASA/Handout via REUTERS.
"That combination really allows us to make links and connections to what's happening on the sun and what's happening at the spacecraft," said Holly Gilbert, Solar Orbiter project scientist at NASA.
Solar Orbiter's primary mission of examining the sun's polar regions will help researchers understand the origins of the solar wind, charged particles that blast through our solar system and affect satellites and electronics on Earth.
A map of magnetic properties for the whole Sun based on data from the Polarimetric and Helioseismic Imager (PHI) on NASA/ESA's Solar Orbiter spacecraft taken on June 18, 2020 and released by ESA July 16, 2020. Solar Orbiter/EUI Team; PHI Team/ESA & NASA/Handout via REUTERS.
(Reporting by Joey Roulette in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham)