• Sat. Mar 2nd, 2024

Solar Orbiter’s Stunning Visuals of the Sun’s Magnetic Field: What Does this Mean for Future Space Exploration?


Feb 13, 2024
Solar Orbiter snapshot captures surprising surge in activity from the Sun

The Sun is known to undergo a cycle of activity that lasts approximately 11 years, and as it nears its maximum in magnetic activity, we observe more brilliant explosions, dark sunspots, loops of plasma, and swirls of super-hot gas. This phenomenon is caused by the solar dynamo – the process responsible for generating the Sun’s magnetic field. At the beginning of this cycle (during the solar minimum), there is minimal activity with few sunspots. However, as we approach solar maximum, activity steadily increases until it reaches its peak before decreasing again to another minimum.

The most recent solar minimum occurred in December 2019 just two months before Solar Orbiter launched. Initially, early views from the spacecraft showed that the Sun was still relatively calm in February 2021. However, with recent observations taken during a close approach to the Sun in October 2023, there has been a striking increase in solar activity. This adds weight to theories that suggest that the maximum could arrive up to a year earlier than expected.

Solar Orbiter will play an important role in predicting the timing and strength of future solar cycles. While challenging, this information is vital because extreme eruptions can severely affect life on Earth; they can cause damage to ground-based electricity grids and disable orbiting satellites. The images were captured by Solar Orbiter’s Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) instrument which reveals the Sun’s upper atmosphere which has a temperature of around one million degrees Celsius. EUI helps scientists investigate mysterious heating processes that occur in the outer regions of our changing Sun while also providing us with visualization tools since EUI views the Sun in ultraviolet light which is invisible to human eyes. Solar Orbiter is an international space mission led by ESA and NASA, operated by ESA. The Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) instrument is led by Royal Observatory Belgium.

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