The Solar Orbiter satellite took the closest-ever images of the Sun. They were captured during its first approach to the star.
The European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter was sent to space in February with the mission of capturing the first images of the Sun’s poles. This Monday, the Sun-observing satellite reached a distance of 77 million kilometers (47 million miles) from our star, taking the first images.
The distance of 77 million kilometers corresponds to about half the distance between the Sun and the Earth. Solar Orbiter is the first European spacecraft to enter Mercury’s orbit, and in its closest approach to the Sun, it is predicted to be 42 million kilometers (26 million miles) away from its surface.
The approach will allow scientists to test the spacecraft’s 10 scientific instruments. According to EarthSky, the six on-board telescopes will allow images to be taken very close to the Sun for the first time, and they will be revealed in mid-July.
So far, all images captured from the Sun have been taken from Earth, through the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope in Hawaii. NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, launched two years ago, has already made some approaches, but does not have telescopes capable of looking directly at the sun.
The first observations are intended to test whether the on-board telescopes are prepared for future scientific studies and, despite being a test, scientists are already looking forward to some results.
Solar Orbiter will take advantage of Venus’ gravity to perform elliptical rotations and position itself to capture images of the Sun’s poles. This will allow scientists to better understand the behavior of our star’s magnetic field.
The spacecraft is currently 134 million kilometers away from Earth and, at this stage, the images take about a week to arrive, with a daily window of nine hours to download. Once Solar Orbiter gets even closer to the Sun, the images may take several months to arrive, but the satellite can retain the images on its own hardware and send them when it is closest to our planet.