UK spacecraft captures ‘breathtaking’ images as it moves closer to Sun than Mercury

European Space Agency: Giant solar eruption seen by Solar Orbiter

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The Solar Orbiter, which is a probe launched by the European Space Agency (ESA) to observe the Sun, has captured new images of the bright yellow star. The satellite, which is recording detailed observations of space weather and solar winds, is the “most complex scientific laboratory ever to have been sent to the Sun”, according to the ESA.

The Solar Orbiter’s latest images portray the Sun in unprecedented detail and were taken when the spacecraft was crossing directly between the Earth and the Sun.

The probe has gotten closer to the yellow star than any other spacecraft before it, even getting closer than Mercury.

The UK is a major partner of the ESA, both in terms of funding and research, and contributed £387.2 million in 2020.

Caroline Harper, Head of Space Science at UK Space Agency, said: “This is an exciting landmark for Solar Orbiter, which is now even closer to the Sun than Mercury and capturing breathtakingly clear images and data about the solar atmosphere.

“Observing the Sun in such detail will allow scientists to find the origins of powerful eruptions and other events on the Sun’s surface and in its atmosphere, to better understand how they contribute to space weather.

“The UK has played a leading role in designing and building Solar Orbiter, and in developing the science instruments capturing these high-definition images and data.

“We look forward to many more exciting moments as the spacecraft continues to pass the Sun over the coming years and orientates itself to observe our star’s poles for the very first time.”

One of the images, taken by the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI), is the highest resolution image of the Sun’s full disc and outer atmosphere, the corona, ever taken.

Another image, taken by the Spectral Imaging of the Coronal Environment (SPICE) instrument, represents the first full Sun image of its kind in 50 years.

These images were captured when the Solar Orbiter was at a distance of roughly 75 million kilometres, halfway between our world and its parent star.

The high-resolution telescope of EUI takes pictures of such high spatial resolution that, at such a close distance, a mosaic of 25 individual images is needed to cover the entire Sun.

Taken one after the other, the full image was captured over a period of more than four hours as each tile takes about 10 minutes, including the time for the spacecraft to point from one segment to the next.

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EUI images of the Sun reveal the upper atmosphere, the corona, which has a temperature of around a million degrees Celsius.

The Solar Orbiter will make repeated trips close to the Sun and also gradually raise its orientation to view the Sun’s previously unobserved polar regions.

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