A sun-studying spacecraft nabbed its first footage of a solar outburst before its science mission has officially begun.
Solar Orbiter, a mission jointly run by the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA, launched in February 2020 and has made its first two close approaches of our star, most recently on Feb. 10. Scientists are still digging through that data before the spacecraft begins its formal science work in November. But they’ve already spotted something special in data from just after the February close approach: two coronal mass ejections, which occur when the sun spits large blobs of its atmosphere out into space.
At the time, the spacecraft was about half the distance from the sun as Earth and on the opposite side of our star as our planet. That location meant Solar Orbiter was able to see parts of the sun completely invisible to scientists on Earth, but it also meant that sending data home was a slow process, and scientists are still digging into what the spacecraft saw.
Researchers had already found a couple coronal mass ejections in spacecraft data from when the probe was farther away from the sun. But then, scientists noticed that three of Solar Orbiter’s instruments spotted two coronal mass ejections soon after the close approach, according to an ESA statement.
These were the first such events observed by the Solar Orbiter Heliospheric Imager (SoloHI) instrument, which filmed the flow of material bursting out of the sun. That instrument was only gathering data by chance, when SoloHI was observing with only one of its four detectors and quite sporadically, according to a NASA statement, just 15% as frequently as it will gather data during the main mission.
The instruments were able to capture particularly stunning views of one of the coronal mass ejections on Feb. 12 and Feb. 13. Each of the three instruments on Solar Orbiter focuses on a different region, so their views stretch from the visible surface of the sun all the way out to more than 20 times the width of the sun itself, according to ESA.
Still farther afield, three other spacecraft observed the same event: NASA’s STEREO-A, ESA’s Proba-2 and the joint mission Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). Taken together, the four missions’ observations of the coronal mass ejection offer the sort of global perspective on the sun and its surroundings that has been difficult for scientists to come by so far.
Like other types of space weather, the broad category of effects across the solar system caused by the sun’s activity, coronal mass ejections are of interest to scientists and engineers because they can potentially damage spacecraft and harm unprotected astronauts, especially beyond the orbit of the International Space Station.
So far, scientists have limited capabilities to monitor and predict space weather — hence the strong interest in missions like Solar Orbiter that should improve researchers’ understanding of how the sun works. Solar Orbiter’s unique contribution to this quest will be its skewed orbit, which will allow scientists to image the sun’s poles for the first time.
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