Science Daily shares some of the discoveries from the first images of the Solar Orbiter mission – including the presence of “mini-flares” that astronomers have dubbed “campfires”:
“These are only the first images and we can already see interesting new phenomena,” says Daniel Müller, ESA’s Solar Orbiter Project Scientist. “We didn’t really expect such great results right from the start. We can also see how our ten scientific instruments complement each other, providing a holistic picture of the Sun and the surrounding environment.”
Solar Orbiter, launched on 10 February 2020, carries six remote-sensing instruments, or telescopes, that image the Sun and its surroundings, and four in situ instruments that monitor the environment around the spacecraft. By comparing the data from both sets of instruments, scientists will get insights into the generation of the solar wind, the stream of charged particles from the Sun that influences the entire Solar System.
The campfires shown in the first image set were captured by the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) from Solar Orbiter’s first perihelion, the point in its elliptical orbit closest to the Sun. At that time, the spacecraft was only 77 million km away from the Sun, about half the distance between Earth and the star.
“The campfires are little relatives of the solar flares that we can observe from Earth, million or billion times smaller,” says David Berghmans of the Royal Observatory of Belgium (ROB), Principal Investigator of the EUI instrument, which takes high-resolution images of the lower layers of the Sun’s atmosphere, known as the solar corona. “The Sun might look quiet at the first glance, but when we look in detail, we can see those miniature flares everywhere we look.”
The scientists do not know yet whether the campfires are just tiny versions of big flares, or whether they are driven by different mechanisms.
“These campfires are totally insignificant each by themselves, but summing up their effect all over the Sun, they might be the dominant contribution to the heating of the solar corona,” says Frédéric Auchère, of the Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale (IAS), France, Co-Principal Investigator of EUI.
The solar corona is the outermost layer of the Sun’s atmosphere that extends millions of kilometres into outer space. Its temperature is more than a million degrees Celsius, which is orders of magnitude hotter than the surface of the Sun, a ‘cool’ 5500 °C. After many decades of studies, the physical mechanisms that heat the corona are still not fully understood, but identifying them is considered the ‘holy grail’ of solar physics.