A striking and unprecedented image of a solar eruption has been captured by NASA and the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter spacecraft.
It’s the largest solar prominence ever observed in a single image together with the full disc of the sun, ESA said in a statement released Friday.
The solar eruption took place on February 15 and extended millions of miles into space. The image was taken by the Full Sun Imager of the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager onboard the Solar Orbiter. The Full Sun Imager is designed to capture the full solar disc even during close passages of the sun.
“Right now, there is still a lot of ‘viewing margin’ around the disc, enabling stunning detail to be captured by FSI out to about 3.5 million kilometres, equivalent to five times the radius of the Sun,” ESA said.
“At closest approach on 26 March, which will see the spacecraft pass within about 0.3 times the Sun-Earth distance, the Sun will fill a much larger portion of the telescope’s field of view.”
ESA described solar prominences as “large structures of tangled magnetic field lines that keep dense concentrations of solar plasma suspended above the Sun’s surface, sometimes taking the form of arching loops.”
Solar prominences are often associated with coronal mass ejections, a hugely energetic explosion of light, solar material and energy from the Sun. If these ejections are directed toward Earth, they can disrupt technology reliant on satellites. The ejections also cause the northern lights.
However, in this instance, the coronal mass ejection was traveling away from us.
The ESA said the imagery would allow space experts to understand for the first time how events like these connect to the solar disc.
The sun is getting more active. It started a new 11-year cycle in 2019, and that period’s solar maximum – when activity peaks – is predicted to happen about halfway through 2025.
It’s important to understand the solar cycle because space weather caused by the sun – eruptions like solar flares and coronal mass ejection events – can impact the power grid, satellites, GPS, airlines, rockets and astronauts in space.
Other space telescopes, such as the ESA/NASA SOHO satellite, frequently capture solar activity but are unable to produce detailed images of the sun’s corona or outer most layer, which is regarded as very difficult to study.
Next week, the Solar Orbiter and NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will conduct joint observations as Parker makes its next close pass by the sun.
Last year, the Parker spacecraft became the first to “touch the sun.” It successfully flew through the sun’s corona, or upper atmosphere, to sample particles and our star’s magnetic fields.