The Sun as never had been seen: the images closest ever taken


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In 1610, Galileo Galilei he published his famous work ” Sidereus Nuncius “, a little diary of the first observations of space through a telescope of fourteen increases. Between the notes, the father of modern astronomy according to the Sun had “ a few black spots “on its surface, and that the sun king was throwing a sort of” flares ” unexplained. In a time when the Earth was thought the center of the Universe, some scholars of the time described these phenomena as “ impurities “or even” optical illusions “. “On the essence, the place and the movement of these spots, first of all, there is no doubt that they are real things”, wrote Galileo responding to those crazy theories. Today, four centuries later, humanity knows that Galileo was right; although still without having clear what are exactly those stains and how it really works our star . But is on the road to find out.

Specifically, to 77 million kilometers from the Sun, where he is currently the european ship Solar Orbiter , the mission’s most ambitious led by the European Space Agency (ESA) in collaboration with the NASA . The probe, launched from Cape Canaveral on the 10th of February, has just completed the commissioning phase of the instruments, a total of ten -two to seal the Spanish-. And with just “ turn on the button “to verify that everything works correctly, the mission has already obtained surprising results: in addition to being the snapshot closest to the Sun ever taken by the man -there have been other probes that have approached more, but none with cameras- , have been revealed micro-flares across the solar surface, something like small” bonfire “; in addition, it has been proven that the ship is capable of processing “in-situ” images more than twice faster than on Earth thanks to a chip manufacturing Spanish ; and the preliminary tests suggest that Solar Orbiter is ready and ready, call to make history in solar physics modern.

Images taken by the instruments EUI and PHI of the Sun to 77 million kilometers from the star at different wavelengths – Solar Orbiter (ESA & NASA)Mini flares all over the Sun

“These are just the first images and we can already see new phenomena very interesting”, explained in press conference online Daniel Müller , Project scientist, Solar Orbiter of ESA. What was most striking, no doubt, are those “ minifulguraciones ” picked up thanks to the instrument Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) during its elliptical orbit closest to the Sun. “The micro flares are family members of the solar flares that we observe from Earth, but millions or a thousand million times smaller,” says David Berghmans , the Royal Observatory of Belgium (ROB), principal investigator of the instrument EUI, which takes high resolution images of the lower layers of the atmosphere of our star. “The Sun may seem quiet at first glance, but when we look in detail, we can see these’ flares ‘ in miniature on all sides.”


scientists do not yet know if these micro flares are just a small versions of large eruptions or respond to any other type of mechanism. Even so, there are already theories that suggest that may be contributing to one of the most mysterious phenomena of the Sun, the coronal heating : for the moment it is unknown why the solar corona, the outer most layer of the atmosphere of our star, is at a temperature of more than a million degrees celsius, while the surface of the star recorded “only” 5,500 degrees celsius. The explanation behind this “anomaly” is the “Holy grail” of solar physics.

“Obviously it is too soon to tell, but we hope that by connecting these observations with measurements of other instruments, which are able to ‘feel’ the solar wind, we can respond to some of these mysteries”, stresses Yannis Zouganelis , scientific assistant for the Project Solar Orbiter in the ESA. Here you will enter game one of the Spanish instruments, the Energetic Particle Detector (EPD), which continuously during the trip, collect data from the energetic particles to pass around.

In its early measurements, the sensors of the EPD have also given a lot of surprises. “There is a ctividad constant of particles supratérmicas -that have an energy more powerful of the particles that emanate from the solar wind – which we suspect may be related to the properties of the interplanetary magnetic field that envelops the entire Solar System, but it is still early to draw conclusions”, explains to ABC Javier Rodriguez-Pacheco , professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics of the UNIVERSITY and principal investigator of the EPD.

The side “hidden” from the Sun

But the particles that are of greatest concern to experts at the space weather are those that emanate from the powerful solar flares, which release energy equivalent to millions of atomic bombs. These accelerate and load the solar wind to the levels that can be dangerous for the life on Earth, as they are able to damage from the satellites that orbit our planet, in extreme cases, the electrical networks of the land -as demonstrated by the event Carrington-. And, apart from studying them on the ground with instruments such as the EPDS, Solar Orbiter will monitor other phenomena that are closely related to these solar storms, as, in effect, the patches of which it was witness Galileo.

Up to now it is known that these solar spots, despite registering lower temperatures than the rest of the surface, they have an intense magnetic activity. These darker regions appear, grow, change, dimension, and appearance to then disappear after weeks or even months. The problem is that, until now, we could only see them from the perspective of the Earth . “But with Solar Orbiter we will be able to follow his career and watch them evolve from points that until now were hidden,” explains ABC Jose Carlos del Toro Iniesta , a researcher at the IAA-CSIC and colidera, together with Germany, the instrument SO/PHI , in charge of mapping the magnetic activity of the Sun.

“At this time, we are in the part of the solar cycle of 11 years when the Sun is very quiet,” explains Sami Solanki , director of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen (Germany), and Principal Investigator of PHI next to The Bull. “But because Solar Orbiter is at a different angle than the Earth, we can see an active region that was not observable from our point of view”. That is to say, to have a “spy” behind the Sun while ground-based observatories also make measurements. Thus, in the first tests, the instrument has proven its ability to capture how the intensity of the solar magnetic field both at global level and focused in specific areas over small, providing incredible images of which some have been processed in the own ship for a chip that is created in the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia (IAA) that is capable of performing the task in 20 minutes, while in the Land would cost fifty computers and a time. “She had never developed this type of device even for observations from earth and now we have seen that it works great,” confirmed Del Toro.

Image of the Sun with the telescope’s entire disk SO/PHI (left). Map of the solar magnetic field obtained with the same telescope (centre). Solar magnetic field with the telescope’s high-resolution (right). The colors green and brown represent the two polarities (North and South) of the magnetic field. – SOLAR ORBITER/ PHI/ ESA/ NASA

“we are All very excited with these early images, but this is only the beginning,” concludes Müller. From here to the Solar Orbiter will have two years to get close to some 42 million kilometers from the Sun , rise in the plane and teach us, among many other things, the poles of our star, something never before seen by man. For everything there is a first time, I would say Galileo.