Pictures coming from solar orbiter


One of the best things about astronomy is its never ending supply of terrifying scenes. Nearly every new mission or telescope offers new ways to see the universe, and when they are translated visually they can offer absolutely stunning images of some of the most interesting places in that universe. Now humanity is beginning to process images to embellish the sky in one of the new missions: the Solar Space Orbiter of the European Space Agency. And boy are those images breathtaking.

The data the scientists are analyzing have been collected using ten different instruments made from both telescope and in-situ instruments. They have collaborated to provide data sets (and in some case images) of three very different events.

The first data set focuses on the most unpredictable of that environmental conditions – the weather. In this case, it is the weather of space, and especially the solar winds that are sometimes emitted from the sun itself. The in-situ instruments of the solar orbiter were able to calculate where the solar wind that streamlined the spacecraft came from. The particular wind they were monitoring in June 2020 was coming from near a “coronal hole”, where the Sun’s magnetosphere allows air, which is normally on the Sun itself, into space outside Is removed

Video showing some data captured by solar orbiter.
Sincerely: ESA

Another interesting data set in relation to space weather was the role of solar orbiters in multi-point evaluation of coronal mass ejections (CME). The CME was directed as a solar orbiter while aligning it between the Sun and the Earth, so the CME continued the orbiter and eventually collided with the Earth a few hours later. BepiColombo, orbiting the Earth at that time, was ESA’s first mission to Mercury. BepiColombo also picked up the signal for CME as it hit Earth.

There was a third satellite that also contributed additional data points – Stereo-A, a NASA mission that has been observing the sun since 2006. It originally raised CME as it emitted from the sun, and was able to hit the solar orbiter and BepiColombo in return. Data points from these three platforms can be used to help analyze any interesting aspects of this, and possibly other, CME.

Graphic illustration of various spacecraft involved in detecting CME repelling solar orbiters in April 2020.
Sincerely: ESA

Weirdly, there was another investigation that almost did not notice CME, even though it was specifically designed to detect such incidents. SOHO, an orbiter that has been observing the Sun since 1995, was barely seen when hit by CME at Earth’s L1 LaGrange point. The additional data from the observatory would have added to the treasures already collected, but now scientists must puzzle over the absence of data rather than its meaning.

The second data set concerns the “campfire” previously noted in the first batch of solar orbiter images from earlier this year. Research teams have begun to indicate that campfires may actually be long-sought after “nano-flares” that cause the sun’s corona to heat up.

See the broad sun pointing "Campfire"
Image showing “campfire” that could potentially be nano-flare.
Sincerely: ESA

A definitive answer is not yet in the bag, although additional data will have to be collected, particularly regarding the energy level of the campfire. As Frederick Auchere, president of the solar orbiter remote-sensing working group puts it, “Right now, we only have commission data … and the results are very preliminary. But clearly, we see very interesting things.”

The third data set came from a severe bit of cosmic time. When the Solar Orbiter was launched, program managers saw that the comet would pass through the tail of the Atlas. This provided a unique opportunity to collect some additional data, even though the solar orbiter’s devices were not designed for a comic encounter.

Image showing dissolution of comet ATLAS.
Hubble images of Comet Atlas before the Solar Orbiter passes through the tail.
Credit: NASA, ESA, STSci, and D. Jewitt (UCLA)

This encounter made it even more interesting that ATLAS actually disintegrated in April of 2020 before Solar Orbit reached its tail. While there was a chance that the spacecraft might not know anything due to the disintegration of the comet, it actually picked up spikes in magnetic signatures as well as patches of increased interstellar dust. As Tim Horbury, president of the Solar Orbiter in-situ working group, explains, “This is the first time we’ve essentially traveled through the disintegration of a comet”.

Although there would be no pictures from the solar orbiter of the comet’s disintegration, Habbal still had some amazing individuals. And and as the solar orbiter continues its data collection mission with a pair of Venus and an exceptionally close approach to the Sun, some amazing photos of our nearest star are still likely to arrive.

learn more:
ESA: Solar Orbiter: Turning Pictures Into Physics
UT: They are in! First images from ESA’s Solar Orbiter
Space.com: Solar orbiter spacecraft makes its first flyby of the sun

Lead Image Credit: Sun Image from Solar Orbiter. Sincerely: ESA

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