One of the best things about astronomy is that there are an infinite amount of great images. Almost every new mission or telescope presents new ways to see the universe, and when these are visually translated they can offer absolutely stunning images of some of the most interesting places in this universe. Now humanity is beginning to process the images of one of the more recent missions to grace the sky: the European Space Agency's Solar Orbiter. And boy, these pictures are breathtaking.
The data that the scientists analyze will be collected using ten different instruments, consisting of both telescopes and in-situ instruments. They worked together to provide data sets (and in some cases images) of three very different phenomena.
The first set of data focuses on the most unpredictable environmental conditions – the weather. In this case, however, it is space weather, and especially solar winds, that occasionally emanate from the sun itself. Solar Orbiter's in-situ instruments were able to calculate where the solar wind was coming from, which buffed the spacecraft. One particular wind they monitored in June 2020 appeared to be coming from near a "coronal hole" where the sun's magnetosphere can expel the wind, normally contained in the sun itself, into space.
Video showing some of the data collected by the Solar Orbiter.
Image credit: ESA
Another interesting data set on space weather was the role of the solar orbiter in a multi-point coronal mass ejection (CME) assessment. The CME was directed as a solar orbiter while it was aligned between the sun and earth, so that the CME passed the orbiter and finally hit earth a few hours later. BepiColombo, ESA's first mission in Mercury, orbited the earth at the time. BepiColombo also picked up the signal for the CME when it hit Earth.
There was a third satellite that also contributed additional data points – Stereo-A, a NASA mission that has been observing the sun since 2006. She originally recorded the CME as it was broadcast from the sun and was able to watch it hit the Solar Orbiter and BepiColombo in turn. Data points from all three of these platforms can be used to analyze interesting aspects of these and possibly other CMEs.
Graphic depicting the various spacecraft that were involved in the detection of the CME that Solar Orbiter hit in April 2020.
Image credit: ESA
Oddly enough, there was another probe that the CME barely noticed, even though it was specially designed to detect such phenomena. SOHO, an orbiter that has been observing the Sun since 1995, barely noticed that it was hit by the CME at Earth's L1 LaGrange point. Additional data from the observatory would have resulted in an additional increase in the treasury already collected, but now scientists have to puzzle over the absence of the data rather than its significance.
The second record relates to the "bonfires" first noted in the first series of Solar Orbiter images earlier this year. Research teams have begun to suggest that the bonfires could indeed be the long-awaited "nano-torches" believed to be causing the solar corona to warm.
Image shows a "campfire" that could possibly be a coveted nano-torch.
Image credit: ESA
A definitive answer is not yet in my pocket, however, as additional data needs to be collected, especially about the energy levels of the campfires. Frédéric Auchère, chairman of the Solar Orbiter remote sensing working group, says: “At the moment we only have commissioning data … and the results are very preliminary. But sure, we see very interesting things. "
The third record came from a random piece of cosmic timing. When the Solar Orbiter was launched, the program managers noticed that it was going through the tail of comet ATLAS. This was a unique opportunity to collect some additional data, even though the Solar Orbiter instruments were not designed for a cometary meeting.
Hubble images of comet ATLAS decay before the Solar Orbiter passes its tail.
Credits: NASA, ESA, STSci and D. Jewitt (UCLA)
What made the encounter even more interesting was that ATLAS actually disintegrated in April 2020 before Solar Orbit reached its tail. While there was a possibility that the spaceship might not detect anything due to the comet's decay, it actually picked up spikes in magnetic signatures as well as spots of increased interstellar dust. Tim Horbury, Chair of the In-Situ Working Group on Solar Orbiter, said, "This is the first time we've essentially traveled through a decayed comet."
While there likely won't be any images from the solar orbiter of the comet's decay, there have been some amazing ones from Hubble. And and Solar Orbiter continues its data collection mission with a couple of Venus flybys and an exceptionally close approach to the Sun. There are likely to be some more amazing pictures of our next star to come.
ESA: Solar Orbiter: Transforming Images into Physics
UT: You are there! The first pictures from ESA's Solar Orbiter
Space.com: The Solar Orbiter spacecraft flies past the sun for the first time
Lead Image Credit: Image of the Sun from the Solar Orbiter. Image credit: ESA