The probe ventures so close to the sun that we see something new: tiny solar flares.

In February of this year, the European space agency ESA launched its Solar Orbiter . The probe is built to study the sun and should give us, for the first time, a glimpse of the poles of the mother star in the coming years. It promises to be a wonderful mission that will provide a wealth of information about the sun.

Nano solar flares?
The unmanned probe has now returned photos taken at a distance of 77 million kilometers from the sun. We see tiny solar flares near the surface of the sun here. “These campfires are millions of times smaller than the solar flares we spot from Earth,” said researcher David Long. “The sun may seem calm at first glance, but when we look at the sun in detail, we see these miniature flames popping up everywhere,” adds researcher David Berghmans.

The true nature of the campfires
It is still unclear whether the ‘campfires’ are only small versions of large solar flares or whether they are based on other mechanisms. For example, some researchers suspect that the tiny solar flares have something to do with one of the biggest mysteries on our parent star: coronal warming. “The Sun’s outer atmosphere – the corona – is 200 to 500 times warmer than the layers below,” says Long. “These campfires may have something to do with that.” “These campfires are each insignificant in themselves,” says researcher Frédéric Auchère. “But if we add up the effect of all those campfires scattered all over the sun, they could be the biggest contributor to global warming of the corona.

No new record

It is impressive that the Solar Orbiter approached the sun for these images about 77 million kilometers away. But there is a probe that ventured much closer to the sun. NASA’s Parker Solar Probe passed the sun in 2018 at a distance of 26.55 million kilometers .

Promising
The first data of the Solar Orbiter are certainly promising. “These are only the first images and we can already spot interesting new phenomena,” notes researcher Daniel Müller. “We didn’t expect to see such big results from the start. Moreover, we see that our ten scientific instruments (on board the Solar Orbiter, ed.) Complement each other and together we can paint a holistic picture of the sun and the surrounding environment. ”

A lot of small solar flares on the sun. 
Image: Solar Orbiter / EUI Team (ESA & NASA); 
CSL, IAS, MPS, PMOD / WRC, ROB, UCL / MSSL.

The back of the sun
Because these first images are just the beginning. The Solar Orbiter has numerous instruments that can radically change our view of the sun. Take the Polarimetric and Helioseismic Imager, for example(PHI). The instrument studies magnetic field lines on the sun’s surface and monitors regions with exceptionally powerful magnetic fields that can generate solar flares. The solar flares are often accompanied by the release of charged particles that further crank up the solar wind and can interact with the Earth’s magnetic field, creating a geomagnetic storm that can disrupt telecommunications and electricity networks on Earth (see box). “Right now, we are in a part of the 11-year cycle of the sun in which the sun is very quiet,” explains researcher Sami Solanki. “But because the Solar Orbiter looks at the sun from a different angle than we do from Earth, we can now see an active region that cannot be seen from Earth. That is a first. We have never been able to measure the magnetic fields at the back of the sun. ” And to top it all off, the Solar Orbiter can use other instruments it carries on board to measure the actual impact of that activity on the immediate environment of the sun (in which the solar observatory is located).

Space weather
The Solar Orbiter’s work not only helps us get a more complete picture of our parent star, but also has direct implications for life on Earth. Because activities in and on the sun dictate the sometimes stormy space weather that we also have to deal with on earth. The sun regularly emits large amounts of charged particles that, when directed to Earth, can lead to geomagnetic storms. These disturbances of the Earth’s magnetic field not only result in the known polar light, but can also cause major problems in exceptional situations. We saw this in 1859, for example, when the largest geomagnetic storm in recent history took place, namely the so-called Carrington event. A devastating solar storm so powerful that telegraph lines were energized and devices caught fire. And this was not the last solar storm. Suppose a solar storm of this magnitude were to happen again, large transformers would be destroyed and essential satellites would stop functioning. The power network can fail for a long time. If large cities are without electricity for weeks – maybe even months -, the consequences are unprecedented. Scientists want to prevent such a disaster. They hope that discoveries on the sun – such as these campfires – will lead to a better understanding of our mother star and ultimately to technological breakthroughs that help protect infrastructures on Earth and in space and enable us to improve space weather. can predict. And this was not the last solar storm. Suppose a solar storm of this magnitude were to happen again, large transformers would be destroyed and essential satellites would stop functioning. The power network can fail for a long time. If large cities are without electricity for weeks – maybe even months -, the consequences are unprecedented. Scientists want to prevent such a disaster. They hope that discoveries on the sun – such as these campfires – will lead to a better understanding of our mother star and ultimately to technological breakthroughs that help protect infrastructures on Earth and in space and enable us to improve space weather. can predict. And this was not the last solar storm. Suppose a solar storm of this magnitude were to happen again, large transformers would be destroyed and essential satellites would stop functioning. The power network can fail for a long time. If large cities are without electricity for weeks – maybe even months -, the consequences are unprecedented. Scientists want to prevent such a disaster. They hope that discoveries on the sun – such as these campfires – will lead to a better understanding of our mother star and ultimately to technological breakthroughs that help protect infrastructures on Earth and in space and enable us to improve space weather. can predict. then large transformers are destroyed and essential satellites stop functioning. The power network can therefore fail for a long time. If large cities are without electricity for weeks – maybe even months -, the consequences are unprecedented. Scientists want to prevent such a disaster. They hope that discoveries on the sun – such as these campfires – will lead to a better understanding of our mother star and ultimately to technological breakthroughs that help protect infrastructures on Earth and in space and enable us to improve space weather. can predict. then large transformers are destroyed and essential satellites stop functioning. The power network can therefore fail for a long time. If large cities are without electricity for weeks – maybe even months -, the consequences are unprecedented. Scientists want to prevent such a disaster. They hope that discoveries on the sun – such as these campfires – will lead to a better understanding of our mother star and ultimately to technological breakthroughs that help protect infrastructures on Earth and in space and enable us to improve space weather. can predict.

And there is more. Because the Solar Orbiter will venture even closer to the sun. The images released now have been taken from a distance of approximately 77 million kilometers. “The Solar Orbiter has embarked on a long journey through the interior of the Solar System and will approach the Sun much closer within two years.” Eventually it will venture up to 42 million kilometers from the sun. “That’s about a quarter of the distance between the Sun and Earth.” It must yield spectacular images and hopefully also reveal the best kept secrets of the sun.

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