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‘Campfires’ Spotted On Sun in First Images from Solar Orbiter

Closeup of sun's surface
ESA

In February of this year, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Solar Orbiter launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida and headed straight for the Sun. Now, the tough solar explorer has sent back its first images, which reveal previously unseen “campfires” on the Sun’s surface.

When the Solar Orbiter snapped the photos that captured the small fiery disruptions, it was 55 million miles away from the Sun, a relatively close distance considering how much heat our star throws off. In fact, while NASA’s Parker Solar Probe represents the closest a vessel from earth has ever gotten to the Sun, the pictures returned by Solar Orbiter are the closest shots ever taken of the giant fireball.

So, What Are the “Campfires?” 

“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 first glance, but when we look in detail, we can see those miniature flares everywhere we look.”

It’s still unclear whether the campfires eventually grow into solar flares, which are massive explosions of energy that stream out into space and enhance the solar wind, or if they exist unto themselves. 

Hot Air

One theory is that the campfires might contribute to the coronal heating in part of a still unknown mechanism that heats the Sun’s outermost layer (the corona) to temperatures higher than a million degrees Celsius, which is quite a bit more blistering than the Sun’s surface temperature of 5500 degrees celsius. 

While these first images have certainly caused a stir in the astronomy community, they represent only the start of the Solar Orbiter’s mission, which is set to return better and better images of our star as it gets closer, while also revealing more details about the solar wind using its ten onboard instruments.

“We are all really excited about these first images — but this is just the beginning,” adds Daniel. “Solar Orbiter has started a grand tour of the inner Solar System and will get much closer to the Sun within less than two years. Ultimately, it will get as close as 42 million km, which is almost a quarter of the distance from Sun to Earth.”

Check out more images from the Orbiter in the gallery below selected from the ESA, or see all the photos at their online gallery.