Solar Orbiter Completes a Historic Passby of the Sun

The latest photographs from the Solar Orbiter show the entire Sun in unprecedented detail. On March 7, 2022, they were taken as the spaceship passed squarely between the Earth and the Sun.

The finest resolution photograph of the Sun's complete disc and outer atmosphere, the corona, has ever been taken by the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI).

Another image, captured by the Spectral Imaging of the Coronal Environment (SPICE) instrument, is the first whole Sun image in 50 years, and by far the best, because it was captured at the Lyman-beta wavelength of ultraviolet light released by hydrogen gas.

All ten of Solar Orbiter's equipment were operational as it approached the Sun, collecting crucial data on the Sun's features. Solar Orbiter specialists from ESA and NASA will spend weeks sifting through and studying these data and photographs now that the flyby is finished.

Solar Orbiter came within 48 million kilometers of the Sun's surface during the flyby on March 26 — less than one-third of the distance between the Sun and the Earth. Solar Orbiter passed through Mercury's orbit on March 14 and will pass through it again on April 6 as it advances away from the Sun. 

Solar Orbiter's photos of the Sun will be the closest images of the solar surface ever shot, and they will be revealed in a few weeks.

Solar Orbiter passed through a critical point in space on its way to perihelion: the Earth-Sun line. The Earth-Sun line is the point in interplanetary space where the Sun and the Earth meet in the middle. Solar Orbiter's instruments were used to obtain extraordinarily high-definition photographs of the Sun's surface as it crossed this line.

Scientists will be able to compare data and photographs from Solar Orbiter with data and images from other space-based and ground-based solar telescopes by taking images at the Earth-Sun line.

The highest-resolution image of the Sun's corona and complete disk ever taken is one of the mosaic photos captured by Solar Orbiter.

Solar Orbiter's Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) instrument captured the image in the extreme ultraviolet. The EUI uses a wavelength of 17 nanometers to take photographs in the extreme ultraviolet. The corona, the Sun's upper atmosphere, is visible when imaging the Sun at this wavelength.

At the two o'clock and eight o'clock locations on the Sun, two black "prominences," which are big, bright features extending outward from the Sun's surface, can be observed (relative to the direction of the image).

These prominences frequently erupt, ejecting vast amounts of solar material into space in episodes known as coronal mass ejections (CME). On Earth, these CMEs are what often generate "solar storms." One of these CMEs recently triggered a geomagnetic storm in Earth's magnetosphere, resulting in the loss of roughly 40 SpaceX Starlink satellites. 

At the Earth-Sun line, the EUI was not the only instrument collecting data and acquiring photographs of the Sun. The Spectral Imaging of the Coronal Environment (SPICE) instrument recorded a range of mosaic photos in various wavelengths of extreme ultraviolet light, including the first image of the Sun in nearly 50 years at the Lyman-beta wavelength. From the upper corona to the bottom chromosphere, SPICE is designed to measure the numerous layers of the Sun's atmosphere.

SPICE took images of the Sun at four different wavelengths, each corresponding to emissions caused by a different element in the Sun's atmosphere: 10,000°C (hydrogen), 32,000°C (carbon), 320,000°C (oxygen), and 630,000°C (nitrogen) (neon). Each element is depicted in a separate color for comparison: hydrogen is purple, carbon is blue, oxygen is green, and neon is yellow.

Solar physicists will be able to pinpoint the exact layers at which solar prominences emerge and track them back to their source using SPICE's photos and other instruments and systems aboard Solar Orbiter. SPICE will also help solar physicists better comprehend how heat rises through the Sun's atmosphere, which is one of heliophysics' most perplexing mysteries.

In general, the quantity of heat emitted by a heated object decreases as you go further away from the source of the heat. Because the Sun's core is the source of its heat, it's natural to think that the corona, the Sun's outermost atmospheric layer, is cooler than the surface.

This is not the case, however.

The corona reaches roughly one million degrees Celsius in actuality, whereas the Sun's surface is barely 5,000 degrees – a shocking and perplexing riddle that solar scientists have been trying to understand for years. One of the primary goals of Solar Orbiter's seven-year primary mission is to determine the specific source of this occurrence.

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