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Nasa’s Solar Orbiter beams back closest image ever taken of the Sun after enduring scorching flyby

NASA and the European Space Agency have released the closest images ever taken of the Sun, revealing "campfires" scattered across its scorching surface.

The incredible snaps were captured by the Solar Orbiter probe last month as it soared within 47million miles of the Sun – about half the distance between Earth and our star.

Launched in February, the spacecraft will eventually swoop within 26million miles of the Sun's surface, closer than any probe before it.

European and US scientists behind the mission said the orbiter's first images shed new light on the Sun's mysterious outer layers.

"The first images are exceeding our expectations," said Dr Daniel Müller, Solar Orbiter Project Scientist at ESA.

"We can already see hints of very interesting phenomena that we have not been able to observe in detail before."

Images released on Thursday show mini solar flares, called "campfires", dotted across the Sun's surface.

Solar flares are brief eruptions of high-energy radiation from the Sun's surface, which can interfere with radio communications on Earth.

Dr Caroline Harper, head of space science at the UK space agency, said that experts were excited by the presence of campfires that are "millions of times smaller than solar flares".

She said: "We do not really know what the campfires are doing but there is speculation that they might play a role in coronal heating, a mysterious process whereby the outer layer of the Sun, known as the corona, is around 300 times hotter than the layers below.

"These campfires may be contributing to that in a way we do not know yet."

To find out more, scientists will monitor the temperatures of these campfires using an instrument on the spacecraft known as Spectral Imaging of the Coronal Environment, or SPICE.

Aside from helping unlock the mysteries of coronal heating, the Solar Orbiter will also help scientists piece together the Sun's atmospheric layers.

The probe will additionally analyse the solar wind, the stream of highly energetic particles emitted by the star.

Understanding more about solar activity could help scientists make predictions on space weather events.

These events can damage satellites and disrupt the infrastructure on Earth that mobile phones, transport, GPS signals and electricity networks rely on.

Dr Harper said: "The science will allow us to start improving our operational capability to predict the space weather, just like you predict the weather here on Earth."

The spacecraft will repeatedly orbit the Sun, making a close approach every five months.

At its closest Solar Orbiter will only be 26million miles away, closer than the planet Mercury.

The Sun – all the facts you need to know

What is it, why does it exist, and why is it so ruddy hot all the time?

  • The Sun is a huge star that lives at the centre of our solar system
  • It's a nearly perfect sphere of hot plasma, and provides most of the energy for life on Earth
  • It measures a staggering 865,000 miles across – making it 109 times bigger than Earth
  • But its weight is 330,000 times that of Earth, and accounts for almost all of the mass in the Solar System
  • The Sun is mostly made up of hydrogen (73%), helium (25%) and then a number of other elements like oyxgen, carbon and iron
  • Its surface temperature is around 5,505C
  • Scientists describe the Sun as being "middle-aged"
  • The Sun formed 4.6billion years ago, and tt's been in its current state for around four billion years
  • It's expected that it will remain stable for another five billion years
  • It doesn't have enough mass to explode as a supernova
  • Instead, we expect it to turn a hulking red giant
  • During this phase, it will be so big that it will engulf Mercury, Venus and Earth
  • Eventually it will turn into an incredibly hot white dwarf, and will stay that way for trillions of years

It will use the gravitational force of Venus and Earth to adjust its trajectory, before getting into operational orbit in November 2021.

Dr Harper said: "At that point, it will send back much more data about the Sun's surface.

"It will also be flying over the poles of the Sun and take images."

The Solar Orbiter was constructed by Airbus in Stevenage and blasted off from Nasa's Cape Canaveral site in Florida on February 10.

British scientists are involved in four out of the ten instruments aboard the spacecraft.

It has been designed to withstand the scorching heat from the Sun that will hit one side, while maintaining freezing temperatures on the other side of the spacecraft as the orbit keeps it in shadow.

Experts says Solar Orbiters thick heat shield can withstand temperatures of up to 520C (900F).

Astonishing new high resolution images of the sun's surface are the most detailed ever taken

In other news, President Donald Trump's Space Force yesterday launched four top-secret satellites from Virginia.

Nasa has revealed the design of a moon lander that could be taking astronauts back to the lunar surface by 2024.

The space agency also recently released an unusual image of the "death explosion" of a massive star that looks just like a bat.

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