Scientists have been able to examine photos of the sun taken from closer than ever before – and discovered tiny solar flares on the surface of the star.
The new findings come from the Solar Orbiter spacecraft, which was launched in February and will get closer to the Sun than the planet Mercury.
The photos taken by the spacecraft is when it was half the distance between the Earth and the sun, 77 million kilometres away.
The images reveal “campfires”, tiny solar flares all over the outermost atmosphere of the sun.
“The campfires are little relatives of the solar flares that we can observe from Earth, million or billion times smaller,” says David Berghmans of the Royal Observatory of Belgium.
“The Sun might look quiet at the first glance, but when we look in detail, we can see those miniature flares everywhere we look.”
These miniature flares could unlock the secrets of the Sun’s coronal heating, reportedly considered the ‘holy grail’ of solar physics.
The corona is the outmost layer of the sun. It reaches millions of kilometres into space, and reaches temperatures of over one million degrees Celcius.
The sun’s surface, by comparison, is only 5500 degrees Celcius.
The reason behind these campfires remains a mystery. They could be ‘nanoflares’, smaller versions of bigger flares from the Sun, or be caused by some unknown factor.
Scientists were also able to see the magnetic field at the back of the sun, something that has never been done before.
“Right now, we are in the part of the 11-year solar cycle when the Sun is very quiet,” explained Sami Solanki, the director of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen in a statement.
“But because Solar Orbiter is at a different angle to the Sun than Earth, we could actually see one active region that wasn’t observable from Earth.”
This information could provide insight into how magnetic storms from the surface of the sun are caused.
These storms enhance solar winds, charged particles released from the corona.
When these particles reach the Earth’s magnetosphere, they can cause magnetic storms here, which disrupt telecommunication networks and power grids.
These discoveries can help scientists protect against that, stopping the damage of satellites, infrastructure, phone signals, GPS, and other networks.
“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” said Dr Caroline Harper, head of space science at the UK space agency.