ESA’s Solar Orbiter Takes a Ludicrously High Resolution Image of the Sun - Beyond The World
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ESA’s Solar Orbiter Takes a Ludicrously High Resolution Image of the Sun

En route to its first close approach near the Sun, the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter captures an incredible image.

You’ve never seen the Sun as bright as this before. Earlier last month, the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter acquired an extraordinary view of our host star.

The images were captured on March 7th, when the Solar Orbiter was directly between the Earth and the Sun. The science team wanted to calibrate and start comparing the images with those from Earth-based and in-space missions like the Inouye solar observatory, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, and the mutual ESA/NASA Solar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), which is positioned at the Lagrange (L1) Sun-Earth point.

“As far as Solar Orbiter’s observations of the Sun are concerned, we are now ‘entering the unknown,'” explains Solar Orbiter Project Scientist Daniel Müller in a recent press release.

The Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) as well as the Spectral Imaging of the Coronal Environment (SPICE) imager were among the spacecraft’s equipment. The EUI image is the highest resolution whole-disk snapshot of the Sun, showing the corona and outer solar atmosphere. It’s certainly worth scrolling through and focusing in on the following:

EUI full disc image of the Sun. Credit: ESA/Solar Orbiter Team. Click here for a full resolution zoomable view.

The full-disk SPICE picture shows the Sun in the ultraviolet at the Lyman-beta wavelength, and this is one of the first images of its sort obtained in 50 years, since Skylab’s solar observation activities.

Solar Orbiter took these images over a four-hour period while the spacecraft was 75 million km from the Sun, near to Venus’s orbit. The Sun was large enough from that distance (two degrees across) that EUI needed a mosaic of 25 pictures to cover the whole disc of the Sun. The result is a 9148 by 9112 grid of 83 million pixels with a resolution 10 times that of a 4K TV screen.

Filaments, nano-flares, and spicules may be observed on the swirling surface of the Sun. Solar Orbiter data will address the fundamental question of how eruptions are created on the Sun’s surface by characterizing the temperature of the Sun as viewed through successive layers.

You’d think that when the Sun passes through successive layers further out, it cools down… The photosphere’s surface, on the other hand, is a relatively cold 5,000 degrees Celsius, whereas the outer corona reaches a million degrees.

SPICE’s temperature view of the Sun: one layer at a time. Credit: ESA

For example, the SPICE sequence illustrates temperature layers in color vs elemental composition as follows: yellow (neon) at 630,000 degrees Celsius, greenish (oxygen) at 320,000 ° C, blues (carbon) at 32,000 ° C, and purple (h) at 10,000 degrees Celsius.

Solar Orbiter: taking the temperature of the Sun. Credit: ESA

Solar Orbiter, that will be launched on February 10th, 2020 atop an Atlas V rocket either from Cape Canaveral Space Force (at the time, Air Force) Station, will study the Sun for seven years. The expedition arrives at an opportune moment, as Solar Cycle 25 begins this year, on its way to a peak around 2025 that might be one of the most powerful in decades.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying the Solar Orbiter lifts off Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: NASA

Solar Orbiter achieved its closest perihelion yet this weekend, moving 50 million kilometers from the Sun’s interior to Mercury’s orbit. Passages close to Venus will gradually change the inclination of the Solar Orbiter’s path, allowing us to observe the Sun’s enigmatic polar regions.

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