Thursday, July 30, 2020

"Campfres" Dance on the Sun's Surface

Environmental & Science Education
Solar System
Edward Hessler

Man, it's a hot one
Like seven inches from the midday sun
--Smooth, Lyrics by Rob Thomas & Itaal Shur

The NASA and European Space Agency joint mission, the Solar Orbiter, was launched in February.

In a press conference July 16, the European Space Agency released the first images (taken May 30) when the solar orbiter was 77 million kilometers (~47,845,581 miles) from the sun. The distance of Earth from the sun is ~152 million kilometers (~94,448,421 miles). These are the closest ever taken. It is on its way to an orbit inside the orbit of the planet Mercury (my emphasis). Mercury is ~36 million miles (~58 million kilometers) from the sun

 In this short article from the British scientific journal Nature by Elizabeth Gibney, David Berghmans, principal investigator for the orbiter's Extreme Ultraviolet Imager instrument comments that“When the first images came in, my first thought was this is not possible, it can’t be that good.It was much better than we dared to hope for. The Sun might look quiet at the first glance, but when we look in detail, we can see those miniature flares everywhere we look."

Gibney notes that "The fires are just millionths or billionths of the size of the solar flares visible from Earth, which are energetic eruptions thought to be caused by interactions in the Sun’s magnetic fields. The mission team has yet to work out whether the two phenomena are driven by the same process, but the researchers speculate that the combined effect of the many campfires could contribute to the searing heat of the corona, the Sun’s outer atmosphere. The corona is hundreds of times hotter than the Sun’s surface, but the reason is a long-standing mystery."

"To be clear," according to BBC reporter Jonathan Amos, "while the new images have been taken from the closest ever vantage point, they are not the highest resolution ever acquired. The largest solar telescopes on Earth will always beat SoIO on that measure.

"But the probe's holistic approach, using the combination of six remote sensing instruments and four in-situ instruments, puts it on a different level." Amos' reporting includes a variety of images that give you an idea of what scientists are seeing and the significance of this mission.

National Public Radio's reporter Rachel Treisman quotes Holly Gilbert, NASA project scientist for the mission at the Goddard Space Flight Center on some of what will be learned. "These unprecedented pictures of the Sun are the closest we have ever obtained. These amazing images will help scientists piece together the Sun's atmospheric layers, which is important for understanding how it drives space weather near the Earth and throughout the solar system."
According to Treisman, "Scientists involved in the mission said that while the first images from a spacecraft typically only serve to confirm that its instruments are working, these photographs reveal an unprecedented level of detail."
Both reports include links to more photographs (Treisman includes a film and also a Facebook page) as well as what is ahead, e.g., fine-tuning the orbit, use of the full array of cameras and instruments to take temperatures. 
 According to Treisman the primary phase of he mission begins November 2021 and it is not until 2022 that it will reach its closest pass-by "'about a third the distance" from the sun to the earth. At this time it will be  inside the orbit of the planet Mercury (my emphasis). "Man, it's a hot one," will take on a new meaning.
Dr. Gilbert was a cello major at the Interlochen Center for the Arts Academy--entering her junior year of high school. She notes in the Academy's Crescendo Magazine that “I really was academically driven—I've always been very interested in math and science. So when I got here and found out that the academics were taken as seriously as the art, that was a perfect combination. It probably academically was the best school I attended."

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