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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
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
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?

Below is a picture with an arrow pointing to such a “campfire” and, for reference, the size of Earth is in the lower-left corner:

The arrow points to a small sun 'campfire'. Notice the Earth scale in the lower left.
The arrow points to a small sun 'campfire'. Notice the Earth scale in the lower left.

SolO will be making 22 orbits over the next 10 years and, by the way, so far the mission has been done remotely from home due to COVID-19. I commend the discipline and dedication of these scientists for seeing this mission through and continuing to educate us Earthlings about our solar home.

You can read and see a bundle of pics and videos at the European Space Agency site right here.

Have a great weekend!

Frank

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