Why staring at the sun is important

(For a telescope, not you)

SolO and the Sun courtesy ESA
SolO and the Sun courtesy ESA

Brand new images of the sun are spinning heads on the internet like the solar system itself. Launched on Feb. 10 from Cape Canaveral, this Solar Orbiter (SolO) is now just 47 million miles from the sun! To put this in perspective, Earth is 93 million miles from the Sun and Venus is 67 million miles from it. Ultimately, SolO will be within 26 million miles away which is closer than Mercury’s 36 million.

So just what is it? A project of the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA, this solar orbiter has ten instruments aboard to take measurements of phenomena like solar winds and magnetic field lines, along with 27 telescopes for “looking” at the sun and space.

SolO and its instruments courtesy ESA

This is the first time all the telescopes operated together rather than alone and the results have been sun-sational!

Sun-sational pictures from SolO courtesy ESA

So why study the sun?

The answer seems pretty obvious -- we wouldn’t be alive without the sun. All the heat, light and weather we have is because of the sun. Some of the questions scientists have are about the corona, the wispy outer part of the sun which clocks in at 1 million degrees while the surface itself is a cool 10,000°. Why the difference? Especially as you go away from the sun? Shouldn’t the temperatures be cooler, not so tremendously hotter? This is a question scientists have been trying to answer for years.

Another big question is about solar wind, those charged particles from the corona that can affect the Earth’s electric grids and communications. Big solar flares produce those winds and now SolO is seeing what they are calling “campfires” or very small flares -- a million or billion times smaller than the average flare! What role do they play in all of this?

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