Mysterious mini-flares dubbed ‘campfires’ have been spotted on the Sun for the first time after a British-built Solar Orbiter sent back the closest-ever images of our star. Solar Orbiter, a joint venture between The European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA, launched in February on a two-year journey to learn more about the nuclear furnace at the solar system’s core.
Dr Caroline Harper, Head of Space Science at the UK Space Agency, told Express.co.uk how the mission is beginning to provide ‘critical’ data about potentially devastating space weather.
She said: “The mission as a whole is going to be looking at the magnetosphere, the magnetic field of the Sun, and how that impacts the generation of the solar wind.
“Ultimately, the reason we’re so interested in this is partly for its own sake, because it’s absolutely fascinating to study that star that we see in the sky every day, but also, the more we understand about the processes that underlie the generation of the solar wind, the more we’ll know about space weather effects and how they’re likely to impact us.
“That’s critical – we need to get to a point where we can predict space weather in the same way we predict the weather here on earth, so we can predict when there are going to be events that might add in a knockout communication or navigation satellites, or even power grids on the ground on Earth.
“We haven’t had a big event like that for a while, but as and when they happen, they’re likely to be fairly significant.”
The first images released today were taken as the probe made a close pass of 47 million miles in mid-June and shows miniature solar flares, dubbed “campfires”, near the surface of the Sun.
Dr David Long the co-principal investigator for the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager, the telescope responsible for these images, believes an intriguing feature spotted in the images may be linked to such space weather.
He told Express.co.uk: “This is the closest we’ve ever had a telescope to the Sun – about halfway between the Earth and the Sun.
“And we’re now able to see these really, really small features which are being called ‘campfires’.
“They’re really small, bright features, appearing and disappearing on very short timescales, like every minute, and they’re incredibly small – about 400 or 500 kilometres across.
“As you move away from the surface of the Sun, the temperature increases.
“So if you can think like moving away from a campfire, the temperature decreases, but here, you’re walking away from the ‘fire’ and it’s getting hotter, which doesn’t really make sense.
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“By the end of 2021, it will be going in much closer to the Sun – even closer than the nearest planet Mercury, it will be going in really close [43 million km].
“And there will be a lot more to learn from it then and it will have an approximate 10 year mission cycle after that, where it will be sending results back.
“So it will getting closer and there will be lots more to see.”
Dr Long also praised his University College London colleagues, who were finalising preparations for the mission during lockdown.
He said: “It’s been an extraordinary job by our engineers last few months, because with the COVID-19 crisis, everybody’s been working from home.
“So they’ve been trying to make sure that this really delicate scientific spacecraft is working from millions of kilometres away, while sitting in bedrooms and studies, and it’s been a phenomenal job.
“They’ve really been doing some spectacular work.”