NASA and ESA’s Solar Orbiter captures an image of the Sun like no other

Revealing the solar disc and corona in 83 million pixels.
Ameya Paleja
The Solar OrbiterEuropean Space Agency

The Solar Orbiter (SolO) captured 'unprecedented' images of our Sun earlier this month as it approached the midway point between the Earth and its star, the European Space Agency (ESA) recently said in a press release

Launched on February 10 of 2020, SolO is a joint collaboration between the ESA and NASA, designed to better understand the Sun and its solar winds. As the orbiter approaches the center of our solar system, it will also observe the polar regions of the burning star, a difficult thing to do from Earth.

Earlier this month, the orbiter reached a distance of 46.6 million miles (75 million km) from the solar body, from roughly half the distance between the average orbit of Earth and its star, capturing the images at an incredibly high resolution. 

The 83 million pixel picture

A low-res image captured by SolO
The image at a lower-resolution. Source: European Space Agency

 The image was taken by the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) of the orbiter, technology that requires the image be spread out over multiple frames. All told, SolO took 25 shots to capture the complete disc of the Sun. Because the capture of each image takes about 10 minutes, the entire process took more than four hours, the ESA said in the press release. Put together in a 9148 x 9112-pixel grid, the final image consists of a mind-boggling 83 million pixels. 

To get a sense of perspective, viewers of the image can look for a tiny dot in the image at roughly the two o'clock position that has been artificially inserted into the photo — that's Earth to scale. If you look closely, you can also see dark filaments projecting away from the Sun. These filaments are solar prominences that can erupt and cause solar storms.

Taken at a 17-nanometer wavelength, the image also captures the Sun's upper atmosphere which is believed to reach temperatures of a million degrees Celsius. 

Studying the Sun's layers

The orbiter is also equipped with another tool called the Spectral Imaging of the Coronal Environment (SPICE) instrument, which took additional images at separate wavelengths.

These images were put together as a mosaic and managed to capture different gases at different temperature ranges. 

Atoms of gases observed at different temperatures
Source: European Space Agency

The purple image corresponds to hydrogen gas at temperatures of about 10,000°C, the blue image to carbon at 32,000°C, while green corresponds to oxygen at 320,000°C, and yellow to neon at 630,000°C. 

By tracing these gases and their temperatures, astronomers hope to better understand how solar storms erupt as well as why the Sun's corona is hotter than the Sun itself.

The orbiter marked another milestone after entering Mercury's orbit over the weekend and will soon send us images of that planet at a much higher resolution than ever seen before.

Do yourself a favor and check out the full 83 million pixel image in greater detail. 

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