On Thursday, the European Space Agency (ESA) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) released photos taken by Solar Orbiter, a spaceship that the space agencies launched in collaboration on February 9, 2020.
"These unprecedented pictures of the Sun are the closest we have ever obtained," Holly Gilbert, a Solar Orbiter project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a statement. "These amazing images will help scientists piece together the Sun’s atmospheric layers, which is important for understanding how it drives space weather near the Earth and throughout the solar system.”
“These images show that Solar Orbiter is off to an excellent start,” ESA’s Solar Orbiter project scientist, Daniel Müller, added.
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The team had to adapt to new research conditions after the outbreak of COVID-19 forced all but the skeleton crew on the project to work remotely.
Despite the challenges, the spacecraft completed its first close solar pass on June 15, when it flew within 48 million miles of the Sun and snapped the closest images of the Sun to date. On Thursday, those photos were released.
According to the principal investigator, astrophysicist David Berghmans, what he calls "campfires" can be seen dotting the Sun in these images. ESA and NASA have discussed the possibility that these campfires are mini explosions known as nanoflares.
Russell Howard of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., added that, "The images produced such a perfect zodiacal light pattern, so clean." Zodiacal light refers to light from the sun that reflects off of interplanetary dust and is so faint that the Sun usually obscures it, according to NASA.
Howard added that the clarity of the zodiacal light in the images, "gives us a lot of confidence that we will be able to see solar wind structures when we get closer to the Sun."
More information from NASA can be found here.